Why Szechuan is Still Tasty After Nearly Four Decades

| by Celestina Blok | photography by Alex Lepe |

If comfort food is defined as providing a familiar feeling of happiness in the form of a hefty, high-carb meal, then Szechuan cuisine (or at least the Americanized version) could be considered comfort food in Chinese form. Menu items at Szechuan Chinese Restaurant, a West Fort Worth staple for nearly four decades, fit the formula. Maybe that’s why neighborhood residents regularly patronize this throwback eatery that hasn’t changed much of anything since it opened in 1979.

Inside, guests are whisked away to a retro past, where oak wood chairs have curved backs and geometric printed fabric seats, and crimson tones are on wide display. A second location of Szechuan Chinese opened in 1986 on Bryant Irvin Road. Both are in strip malls and both garner a loyal following for heavy-portioned Chinese dishes that have become American standards, like Kung Pao chicken, Peking duck and wonton soup.

Szechuan cuisine originates from the Sichuan province in southwestern China, and characteristics include bold flavor, spiciness, and the generous use of garlic and chili peppers. Americanized versions are often overly sauced and incredibly sweet, just the way many Szechuan patrons seem to prefer. For example, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes is General Tso’s Chicken ($13.95), a dish that won’t be found in China. A sticky-sweet variation of orange chicken, the dish is primarily comprised of sugar, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and whole dried red chili peppers coated on battered and deep-fried chicken, served atop a bright green bed of steamed broccoli. Like most dishes at Szechuan, the portion size is easily enough to feed two hungry people, so split it or plan for a to-go box, or make time for a post-meal nap. Thick nubs of cubed chicken thighs were tender and flavorful while the dried chili peppers provided piquant punches of spice. Thankfully, the broccoli was not sauced as its fresh crispness was a welcome palate cleanser and healthy respite from the sweet chicken.

Another popular entrée is Lo Mein ($9.95) – thick noodles stir-fried in vegetables or meat. It’s another American-style dish that’s usually greasy and heavy. While Szechuan’s version was not overly oily during our visit, the amount of beef was lacking compared to the overflowing plate of noodles. But carb lovers might not mind. Savory mushrooms were sporadically found throughout the dish with a few chopstick pokes. Unlike General Tso’s Chicken, the beef Lo Mein wasn’t sugary-sweet – soy sauce presented itself as the dominant flavor.

Adding to the comforting carb overload, entrées are served with choice of steamed white rice or fried rice, the latter of which is fairly bland and features no real additions. During the day, lunchtime specials come with hot and sour, egg drop or wonton soup. The egg drop ($2.50 on its own), with its feathery strings of piping hot egg swimming in a salty broth, was slightly gelatinous in texture, perhaps due to a cornstarch thickening agent. Crispy noodles served on the side added crunch and texture. The wonton soup ($2.75) offered savory balls of pork wrapped loosely in a thick noodle coating.

Popular for dinner on the weekend and for its $6.95 lunchtime specials, Szechuan has long drawn dedicated customers who are willing to wait a while for a table. The portions are huge, the prices are cheap, and the food is filling, just the way the regulars like it.

Locations: 5712 Locke Ave., 817-738-7300; 4750 Bryant Irvin Road, 817-346-6111
What We Liked: Dinnertime portions are easily shareable, which makes the restaurant perfect for dining out on a budget or for a cheap date night.
What We Didn’t: The overuse of sugary sauces, which is common not just at Szechuan but in many Americanized Chinese restaurants.  
Our Recommendations: The General Tso’s Chicken. It’s what many regulars prefer and comes with a pretty heaping helping of steamed broccoli.