Simple, satisfying the order of the day at Szechuan Best


Dining Review - Hot Stuff

December 23, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Szechuan Best had no electricity.

It was early on a Sunday afternoon, and a traffic accident on Liberty Road had knocked out the power. Food was still being served, and the sunlight streaming through the restaurant's windows meant lights weren't necessary. But the kitchen was nearly pitch black, and the cooks were working by flashlight. Service would be slow.

My dining companions and I were warned of all this before we sat down, but we decided to stay anyway. We looked around and saw perhaps a half-dozen families, some Asian, some not, enjoying platters of plump dumplings and bowls of noodles so hot that clouds of steam were curling toward the ceiling.

Many of these families were dressed as though they had come straight from church. Certainly, they didn't dress up for Szechuan Best, a place with a water-stained ceiling and drab gray tiles on the floor.

Despite its less-than-promising appearance (and location, amid fast-food eateries), Szechuan Best has earned plenty of praise during its 13 years in business. Framed write-ups in the entryway from Zagat's, Baltimore magazine and other publications sing the praises of its tasty and inexpensive food.

Szechuan Best serves an extensive roster of Chinese food, including Peking duck, orange beef and shrimp lo mein, but on weekends, the focus is on dim sum - little treats and tidbits designed for tasting and sharing.

Nothing on the dim sum menu - offered from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays - costs more than $6, and the small portions mean that customers are best off ordering at least three dishes each.

The purple dim sum menu, printed in Chinese and English, lists about 50 items.

The steamed spare ribs, bite-sized bone-on morsels in a black bean sauce, may surprise customers expecting the fluorescent-red variety, and the small whole smoked fish might be a challenge to navigate with chop sticks, but most of the dishes will seem familiar to customers who have eaten Chinese food but not dim sum.

I asked one of my dining companions, who ate her fair share of dim sum while growing up in California, what she thought of the food. She said it was good but lacked the subtlety and caliber of ingredients found in the best dim sum establishments. Well, this is Liberty Road, not Rodeo Drive.

Simple and satisfying were the order of the day, from slippery, cool Szechuan noodles topped with a handful of crushed peanuts, to crunchy golf-ball-sized shrimp balls. Dipping the shrimp balls in soy sauce helped cut the grease, a trick that also worked with the giant fried noodles, enormous cylinders of slightly sweet dough similar to funnel cakes and costing all of a dollar each.

As it happened, the electricity returned soon after we sat down, and service was quick. The dishes arrived in ones and twos, steaming hot, and were placed in the middle of the table. Servers spoke enough English to get by, and they were quick to refill water glasses or clear empty plates.

Dumplings, some served on platters and others in bamboo steamers, can be had with a variety of fillings, from gingery minced pork to a mix of spinach and garlic, to pork and leeks together. My favorites were the leek dumplings, which balanced the onion flavor of the leeks with the milder tofu and egg.

Like most Chinese restaurants, takeout is a big part of the business. And - good to know this time of year - Szechuan Best is open every day, including Christmas and New Year's Eve.

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