Living in London for three years has wholly transformed the way that I think about food in the United States. When I go back to visit, I have no interest in fine dining. I want the food I can’t eat in London. Period. Give me proper Vietnamese food, give me Mexican food, give me homestyle Southern cooking, sushi, and yes, give me Szechuan food. This last may perplex English readers. There are some excellent Szechuan restaurants in London. However London does not have Szechuan Chef, and, more importantly, London does not have Szechuan Chef’s Szechuan style crab.
Szechuan Chef is in an unlovely strip mall in Bellevue – not technically Seattle, but increasingly the area around Seattle in which to find excellent Chinese food – and since the first time I went there about six or seven years ago, I have been addicted to the Szechuan style crab. Big meaty Dungeness crabs are split, coated in a mixture of dry spices – crushed Szechuan peppercorns, chillies, salt, and sugar, I think, with just a bit of corn starch to bind them – and wok-fried at unimaginably high heat. The crab pieces are served mounded over the shell and topped with masses of scallions (spring onions), chillies, and peanuts, all of which have also been tossed with the same intoxicating blend of spices and fried. The tingly balance of spicy, salty, and sweet is perfect every time – seriously, they nail it EVERY time – and when the platter of crab comes to the table a hushed silence falls as everyone starts eating, using their hands and cracking claws with their teeth to pull out succulent steaming chunks of meat. Szechuan style crab is a properly spicy dish, but that doesn’t slow anybody down. Above, I used the word “addicted.” This was not gratuitous hyperbole. I have a (completely scientifically unsubstantiated) theory that there are some foods which permanently alter your brain chemistry on a cell-deep level so that once you eat it, you crave it forever. There are a few other food items to which I have this same response – the sweet roti at the Thai Buddhist temple in Berkeley, the corned beef sandwich from Artie’s on the upper west side of Manhattan (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it), and a very few others. But don’t take just my word for it. The crab has the same effect on everyone I’ve brought to the restaurant. My friend V, also living in London, calls it the “magic crab”, and like me, she goes back EVERY time she visits Seattle. I have created a legion of Bellevue bound, crab-driven, zombies.
If you go to Szechuan Chef, don’t stop at the crab. Over the years I have steadily eaten my way through the menu, with nearly universally positive results. The moist, aromatic tea-smoked duck ($11.95) is the best I’ve tasted. The cold pork tripe with hot sauce starter ($5.99) is a lovely dish – crunchy, slippery, tangy, and just slightly briny. My friends J and A always order the young bamboo shoots with dry bean curd ($5.99), in which supple strips of tofu and fresh bamboo are tossed with peanuts and fresh coriander leaves in a spicy oily dressing of rice vinegar and chillies. Delicate, flavorsome hand-made pork wontons (Szechuan Wonton Dry Style, $7.99) arrive steaming hot, swimming in spicy oil. Vegetable dishes are fresh, ungreasy, and enlivened by bits of pickled chilli. Szechuan Chef makes outstanding hotpots of stewed meats – duck or brisket for example, in a dark broth aromatic from unfamiliar barks and berries, pervaded with numbing-hot Szechuan pepper. The whole cooked fish dishes – there are several – are uniformly excellent.
I also love Szechuan Chef’s Dan Dan noodles ($7.95). You can get them with regular or hand-shaved noodles, but hand-shaved noodles are the obvious choice. The thick irregular noodles, springy but tender, rest atop steamed cabbage over a rich porky sauce, almost a soup, flavoured with peanut and sesame. Toss the noodles in the sauce and devour. My father is not a crab man, because he doesn’t like to eat with his hands. This is his favourite dish on the menu. Szechuan Chef is not a restaurant one goes to for its ambience. It’s big, noisy and brightly-lit, and they’ve recently repainted the formerly haz-mat-orange walls with an even more lurid yellow, but the food is consistently superb and the service efficient, brisk, and professional. And then there’s the crab.
15015 Main Street, Bellevue, WA 98007-5229
Price per person: Under $20, including beer (unless you order the crab, which costs $30)
The verdict: Must try!