Friendly tip leads to intriguing find Chinese: For inexpensive fare in a modest setting, Szechuan Cafe's offerings are amazingly good.

$50 and Under

September 25, 1997|By David Michael Ettlin and Bonnie J. Schupp | David Michael Ettlin and Bonnie J. Schupp,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On out-of-town trips, the secret to finding a good, inexpensive Chinese restaurant is asking where the locals eat. A reputation that comes by word-of-mouth is hard to beat.

We had been hearing about a little place tucked away in a strip shopping center on the west side of Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie. A friend positively swore by it -- "Try the Szechuan Cafe." And was she ever right.

It was modest-looking, modestly furnished, modestly priced and unbelievably good -- with menu choices so intriguing that David reluctantly put aside his recurrent craving for orange chicken.

We were guided by our amiable waiter toward a couple of house specialties -- macadamia chicken ($11) and a beef casserole ($9.50). We were dissuaded from pigging out on a third entree (David's orange chicken) by the waiter's polite admonition: "You have enough food; our portions are big."

We started with a serving of a half-dozen little crepes, deep-fried with a filling of cream cheese and fresh crab meat -- a combination as mouthwatering as it sounds, although (not to be crabby) a tad more crab would have been nice.

Chicken corn soup (a variation of egg drop) and won-ton soup both proved to have rich, flavorful broth, and the latter was well garnished with spring onions and strips of pork.

After a dainty serving of fruit-flavored Italian ice to clear the palate, those big entrees arrived. Boneless slices of chicken breast rested in a tasty brown sauce with plenty of macadamia nuts. The dish was terrific. But it was the beef casserole that truly surprised -- stir-fried and served in a covered clay pot.

We were told a bit of the technique: chopped garlic and the tops of green onions sauteed in the pot, the meat added and half-cooked, then taken out while the vegetables are stir-fried, and put back in to finish. Delicate rice noodles were added to absorb excess juices and an assortment of spices, to add flavor.

Throughout the meal, we were constantly asked how everything was -- by the waiter, the bus girl, even the owner, Tim Leung, who sat at the table at our invitation and explained his philosophy: "We don't try to be a fine restaurant. We just try to treat our customers right."

Indeed, we were made to feel as special as the food proved to be.

Leung, 38, said he was raised in Hong Kong and found his way into the restaurant business at the suggestion of his father's friend, head chef at a hotel -- to learn it as a backup career before going off to college in the United States as a young man.

In the 1980s, when the economy and restaurants were booming, he worked as a waiter, later became a partner in a restaurant and five years ago finally opened his own.

"The first two years is a struggle, but I tell myself, 'If you treat your customers right, you will do all right.' I only try to provide friendly service and good food."

And he did -- right down to the orange chicken that David finally ordered as a carryout.

Three days later, David went back to try the Szechuan Cafe's weekday $5 lunch buffet -- a serving style that Leung says is necessary to draw Glen Burnie office workers.

It is smaller than the spreads of other Chinese buffets along Ritchie Highway. Leung says he keeps it small to ensure quality.The half-dozen entree choices were uniformly excellent.

Editor's note: Once a month, David and Bonnie explore Anne Arundel County eateries in search of a good meal for two, priced under $50 (before tip and taxes).

Szechuan Cafe

Where: 7400 Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-768-8989.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Appetizers, $3-$5.25; entrees, $6.95-$20.

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Diners Club, Discover

Rating: *** 1/2

Ratings: * culinary wasteland

**** culinary heaven

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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