Hempstead Plaza, 1721 State High Way 27,
Somerset, NJ 08873
Restaurant Reviewed by Faith Bahadurian
Restaurant Reviewed by Faith Bahadurian
Good friends of food reviews – this reviewer, at least can be counted on to provide a constant flow of interesting restaurants. So I thank local Chinese cookbook author Angela Chang for getting me to one of her favorites. Szechuan Ace, for the first time last winter. Our more recent dinner there confirmed my favorable first impression.
It is located in one of the many unprepossessing strip malls lining State High Way 27 in Somerset, so you might not think of entering if you didn't already know about it. Indeed, most of the clientele on my visit have been Chinese. The place holds barely a dozen tables, which are constantly moved around, sometimes quite close together, to accommodate various sized parties that arrive throughout the evening.
As soon as we were seated, a small bowl was placed in front of us, along with the usual tea. It held soft boiled peanuts, much like the kind enjoyed in the South, and spicy marinated soybean sprout. I noticed that tables of Westerners are given the usual fried noodles and dipping sauce instead, so if you want to try the former, speak up – this is available in many Chinese restaurants,
We were handed several menus. One is the typical menu bound in a leatherette cover, with the many usual dishes that are Chinese-American adaptations that accommodate Western tastes and availability of ingredients. A second menu is a plain sheet of paper with the heading "Szechunan Restaurant" at the top, and on this are dished perhaps more typical to traditional Chinese cuisine, in addition to some of the same items on the bound menu. A third sheet of paper is in Chinese characters, and Angela takes charge of that one.
We started our meal with a dish from the Chinese-language menu, lightly pickled cucumber drizzled with sesame oil and sesame seeds. Pickled foods are quite typical of Szechuan cuisine, as are spicy dishes containing chilies and the regions namesake tongue-numbing peppercorn. We also enjoyed a cup of wonton in hot oil, unusually delicate meat-filled wontons in a light broth slicked with hot chili oil. "eat the wontons and take the broth home to jazz up the other dishes," Angela urged me.
I also ordered aromatic sliced beef, in spite of Angela's and the waiter's concern that I might not like it because the beef contains cartilage. For the Chinese, beef tendon and cartilage are thought of as building healthy joints, and these thin slices of cold beef flavored with five-spice powder do indeed have their chewy sections, but are nonetheless delicious. Next time I am going to try glistening translucent marinated beef tendon, which often appears as "beef tone" on menu.
Not all Szechuan foods are spicy, and at Szechuan Ace there are dishes from other regions, including Taiwanese favorites such as three cups chicken, which I had loved on my first visit. This cold-weather winter (found on the English unbound menu) is a cozy casserole of bone-in chicken pieces, garlic, ginger and Asian basil stewed in rice wine, sesame oil and soy sauce (the three cups), perfect for spooning on rice.
At our recent dinner, Angela ordered a chicken dish found only on the Chinese-Language menu, dong "kwee" chicken, as she pronounced it. A steaming clay cauldron bound with wire arrived at our table. It held at least two quarts of fragrant chicken broth, with jujubes (like a date, with small pits) bobbing around on the surface. In the depths of the pot were chicken pieces, plump mushroom halves, scallion and ginger. When I remarked on the herbal fragrance of the dish, Angela fished around and came up with a piece of gnarled root that looked like something you would dig up in the backyard. (I mentally named it "Knoby" after the Harry Potter elf.) She remarked that the root is a female tonic, and I later figured out that this is the popular herbal supplement dong quai, found in almost any vitamin aisle nowadays.
Now I suggested we try pan-fried flounder, Angela was shocked that I was not "terrified" to eat fish with bones, as she thought was true of all Westerners. I convinced her I had not qualms and we were thrilled with the dish. A whole flounder had been dusted with the flour and lightly fried. It was served with a mild thin brown sauce that somehow did not detract from the crisp and delicate exterior. Very finely julienned scallion and ginger had been cooked in the sauce in strewn atop the fish. We eagerly ate our way through this marvelous dish, and so enamored with it was Angela that she even took the carcass and crispy gills home.
On both my visits to the Szechuan Ace we were given small bowls of warm sweat red bean and rice soup for dessert, maybe a favor to Angela, a regular customer. But my Western taste does diverge from the Chinese when it comes to dessert, and I prefer the orange sections that also are served.
Jian Xu, an owner of Szechuan Ace, has recently opened up a branch in the Princeton Meadows Shopping Center on Plainsboro Road. While I had a perfectly fine dinner recently, they do not offer quite the range of more traditional dishes to be found in Somerset. I am hoping to change their minds about it.
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