Chef/owner Sam Wang has owned a number of Chinese restaurants in the San Fernando Valley, but Szechuwan Garden in Montclair is his first foray in the Inland Empire. As one would image from the name of the restaurant, the focus is on Szechuwan (usually spelled Sichuan) cuisine, the hallmarks of which are the liberal use of red chiles and chili paste, as well as Szechuwan peppercorns (usually added as a powder) that impart a numbing sensation rather than blazing heat.
What I found most intriguing was the traditional style of the menu, which contains some organ meats as well as recipes that one would expect to see served in homes in such cities as Chongqing and Chengdu. There, dishes tend to be uncompromisingly spiced and supremely authentic. Mapo tofu, which can actually be found on the regular menu, is one of the spiciest Szechuwan dishes. It contains cubes of creamy tofu, an abundance of red chili paste and powdered Szechuwan peppercorns. At Szechuwan Garden, it’s available with or without ground pork.
Oxtail tripe was served cold as an appetizer, strewn with green onions and cilantro with a bit of heat from the addition of chili oil. It had virtually no gamey smell. Another intriguing cold item is pork skin in black vinegar, a special that would need to be ordered with at least 24 hours’ notice. The pork skin is cooked for five hours in a broth seasoned with ginger, garlic oil and onions. It’s then cooled down and the residual fat causes the broth to gel around the skin, resulting in slices of jellied pork served with a side of seaweed salad.
Next came boiled sliced fish filets in Szechuan sauce, a chili oil and peppercorn powder infused broth along with green onions and red chiles. The fish is tender to the point of falling apart. It’s best eaten by draining the residual spicy broth back into the bowl.
Dan Dan noodles are very popular in China and so it was no surprise to see it on the menu here. It’s a scintillating dish with just enough heat from red chiles and a pleasant tongue numbness from the peppercorn powder. The dish comes with ground pork and peanuts sprinkled atop the noodles. It was my favorite dish.
Another winner was the Mao pork, whose primary ingredient was tender, fatty pork belly accompanied by roasted garlic cloves —that still retained a bit of pungency — bathed in a spicy sweet and sour sauce. It really had an excellent flavor profile.
We also opted for a few items on the regular menu such as Cantonese soup containing an array of green vegetables in a rich, clear broth; a salt and pepper pork chop dish prepared Taiwanese style; and cumin beef containing only a touch of heat, served over rice.
Szechuwan Garden also offers stir fried rice cake — Shanghai-style with shredded pork, cabbage and sliced black mushrooms in a tangy slightly sweet sauce — as well as tangerine chicken, mapo bean curd, tea smoked duck and shredded pork with Szechuwan sauce among other authentic dishes.
For my palate, the best Chinese dishes have a degree of spiciness that accentuates the flavors of the primary ingredients. The degree of spiciness and numbness can be adjusted to individual tastes, so by all means try some of the dishes from the traditional Szechuwan section. You will not be disappointed.