Story and photos by Mark Sterling-Ogle, March 12, 2015.

The Chinese Cultural Center comprises Chinese architecture, gardens and replicas of ancient Chinese pagodas and statues. It’s also home retail shops, restaurants and offices.

And, since 2000, Szechwan Palace has been nestled in one corner of the complex just south of the Loop 202 on 44th Street. Additionally, a second location was opened in Chandler, near Alma School and Warner roads, in 2012.

Szechuan, one of eight main styles of cooking in China, utilizes garlic, ginger and peppers to create unique experience for the palate. Here, there are two versions of both the lunch and dinner menus, which offer “American Style” mainstream dishes as well as distinctive and authentic Szechwan recipes.

One Monday evening, in celebration of a dear friend’s birthday, our party of five arrived just before 7 p.m. We were ushered to a round table in the corner, the only available option for a party of our size, and it turned out to be a tight fit for a “party of our sizes,” but we tried to make ourselves comfortable. The busy waitress was eager to take our orders, but we needed some time to peruse the rather extensive menus.

I polled my guests and ordered a variety of dishes that would appeal to all. The waitress advised against my selection from the hot pot section of the menu, insisting it’s not popular among American diners. I acquiesced and ordered some hot and sour soup. I was only miffed for a moment; I wasn’t planning on subjecting my guests to simmering pork intestines (which are indeed on the menu), merely something just outside their comfort zones. The soup was tasty and came with enough to fill a small bowl for each of us. 

The next two items, both cold appetizers, arrived quickly. The Chengdu-style pickle is their house-style of kim chi, green cabbage tossed in a spicy garlic chili dressing that had me sweating and going back for more. The pork in garlic sauce was a bowlful – of thinly sliced cured pork belly, or bacon. Although a bowl of seemingly raw, room temperature bacon was somewhat daunting to a few of my guests, those who tried it agreed that it was a tasty delicacy.

My husband insisted we also order some more conventional appetizers, so next up were crab puffs and spring rolls. The crab puffs disappeared quickly and another order was placed, and vanished just as quickly.

For the entrees, I requested such a bounty that we were offered a larger table that had just become available. This turned out to be a great idea, and as each of the dishes came out (as ready) we found a spot on the large lazy susan in the center of the table.

From the “American Style Chinese Food” section of the menu, I went with two standards: beef with broccoli and sweet and sour pork. The beef with broccoli was a hit with my husband and I – the tender slices of beef were rich and delicious, but the broccoli florets were quite large and difficult to consume.

Instead of the sweet and sour pork, sweet and sour chicken was delivered. With all the other dishes coming out it wasn’t noticed at first, but there was no missing the signature florescent sauce atop of the poultry dish. I let others enjoy as I awaited other surprises soon to be delivered.

The birthday boy wanted something spicy and I ordered one of his favorites: Kung Pao Chicken. I requested extra spicy, knowing they could accommodate, but even I was disappointed at the heat level. Perhaps the waitress was again wary of offending our “American” palates.

The Yangzhou style fried rice, teeming with diced Chinese sausage, peas, sliced chicken breast, egg and just a few shrimp proved to be a nice side dish to balance some of the richer selections.

My two favorites, braised pork belly and tea-smoked duck were up next. The braised pork belly was nothing new to me, but a few of my guests had never tried it. Large chunks of “bacon” had been rendered down in a dark brown sauce. This technique allows the fat to enhance the lean areas of tender pork. This entrée received mixed reviews from my dinner companions, as the richness of the dish was pleasing to some, but too much for others.

The preparation of this duck dish is intensive and it is usually served at banquets or other festivities. The bird is first marinated for several hours with a rub containing a combination of whole or crushed Sichuan pepper, huangjiu or baijiu (fermented or distilled Chinese wine), ginger, garlic and salt – and sometimes augmented with black pepper, tea leaves and camphor leaves. The duck is then quickly blanched in hot water, to tighten the skin, then towel- and air-dried (which ensures the skin of the finished duck has a crisp texture). Then the duck is smoked in a wok containing black tea leaves and camphor twigs and leaves. Following the 10- to 15-minute smoke treatment, the duck is steamed for another 10 minutes before being deep-fried in vegetable oil until its skin is crisp.

They nailed it. This was my favorite dish of the evening.

Szechwan Palace brings to the table an array of dishes, both traditional and exotic. Whichever you prefer, be sure to take in all ambiance the center has to offer or perhaps do some grocery shopping if you feel inspired to recreate these flavors at home.

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