I often eat lunch at home, but every now and again I find myself “out and about” running errands and such just about the time the alarm goes off. The one in my middle, I mean. Years of working in the chemical industry taught me to pay attention to alarms. I started looking around for a bite to eat before the alarm got serious. (More serious, I mean.) Only three considerations mattered: it had to be cheap, fast and have good taste. Like me.
I knew there was a good hamburger joint nearby, but for some reason, hamburgers just didn’t seem like the thing. Then I remembered, close to that joint is a Chinese place. In the middle of the strip mall. I couldn’t quite remember the name, just something that sounded like it might have spicy food.
I was there in a couple of minutes, and there were almost no parking spaces available! A good sign, but also a small annoyance. Then I saw somebody leaving, from right in front. They must have been holding the slot just for me…
Sichuan Garden is a quintessential hole-in-the-wall, American Chinese eatery. There are many such in the Austin area, and I’ve even been known to frequent a few. Indeed, I had a flashback to another such place nearer my domicile: Open the door, turn left to the pay counter, get greeted, turn right to the dining area. The standard dining area, with booths down the left wall, smaller tables in the middle, and “family style’ tables along the farther wall. The only difference was the décor, essentially.
It was about half past twelve when I arrived, and the place was hopping. A few early lunch diners were finishing up, but the main crowd was still digging in. The aroma was pleasing, and there were several busy servers hopping about bringing more food out of the kitchen and taking away mostly-cleaned dishes. All of that was another good sign to me. Places like this should be busy at lunchtime; if they’re not, turn and leave immediately, as the food’s likely to be inedible.
I was led to the remaining empty booth. Usually when I’m alone I look for a smaller table, but there just wasn’t any place else open, except for one round family table that would seat eight. With a monster Lazy Susan in the middle. Clearly, the booth was the right choice. My server left me with a large, laminated menu card and took my drink order, then hustled to the back to get more food for others.
The menu is an 8.5 by 14 inch page, laminated as I mentioned, and lots of dishes are shown. Lots and lots of dishes! The largest menu I’ve seen at a Chinese food place of this type and size, especially for lunch. Then I noted that the lunch specials only took up one column out of the ten on the page (front and back). Another panel was devoted to restaurant info, so there’s another eight panels of dishes to explore, some day. As a light summary, here are some of the categories: Snacks; Cold Appetizers; Soup; Noodle / Noodle Soup; Poultry; Seafood; Pork / Beef / Lamb; Special Combination Dinner (quite a few listed as spicy or very spicy); Moo Shu; Vegetable; Egg Foo Young; Noodle / Rice; Chef’s Special (mostly spicy to very hot); Hot Pot (for 6 people; I’m going back for that, soon). One dish that caught my eye was the Beef Noodle Soup Szechuan Style, a cousin to the Vietnamese Pho I so dearly enjoy. I’ve had it, in China, before. If it’s anywhere near as tasty as the “original” I’ll get hooked on their version easily.
Sichuan (Szechuan) food is notoriously zesty. That’s a Good Thing, in my mind. If you want mild, try Cantonese. I was more in the “light me up” mood on this day, though. I estimate that half the dishes on the Sichuan Garden menu show marks indicating some level of heat: one, two, or three chiles. They also can make it hotter if your taste buds are
made of flame-retardant Nomex up for the challenge. I decided to try their standard offerings first, to get a feel for just how hot they make their dishes to begin with.
I plunked for the General Tso’s Chicken, a lunch special that includes drink, soup (egg drop, hot and sour, or wonton), egg roll and rice (fried or steamed); it was marked with two chiles, right in the middle. All of Sichuan Garden’s lunch specials (there are 34 to choose from) are complete and reasonably priced, from $6.50 to $6.95. You might say it’s a stereotypical way for a casual, inexpensive American Chinese restaurant to serve lunch, and I’d agree. Make it simple and push the room full every lunch. They certainly are doing that, in spades.
My food came out quickly, sans soup. Odd, I thought. It was a different server who dropped off my platter, too. Okay, I understand; a busy place has to have everybody pitch in and get the stuff out. I wasn’t worried, my soup would be along directly. I put a bit of soy sauce on my meal as I examined it. The egg roll was scorching hot, right from the fryer, and done a nice golden-brown. It was clearly a pre-made roll, but prepared properly so not an issue. there was a heaping mound of chicken in sauce, with several dried chiles apparent in the mix. A large scoop of fried rice nestled next to the entrée, piled high and giving off plenty of fragrant steam. Classic, I thought.
Still no soup, though. I began to seek out my server. Who was nowhere to be seen.
I tasted the chicken, and it was nice. As expected. Nothing to go WOW about, but a nice, hot, plentiful meal. The sauce wasn’t that hot. I’d actually only give one chile for this dish; but of course, they’re catering to American palates, not those in say, Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu (where chiles are given to infants as weaning devices, I suspect). As I ate and watched for a server (any server) who would glance my way, I found the meal pleasant and filling, a good lunch. Not spectacular, but certainly good value.
The service, by this point, was suffering quite a bit.
I mean, okay; it’s the middle of lunch, I’m the only single-person table, and a round-eye to boot. I can see that I might not get a lot of attention. Didn’t really want a lot, actually; I had a book to read. I did want my soup, though.
Eventually the lady came by with the iced-tea pitcher, and I asked for my soup. She was apologetic and went immediately to get me a bowl of hot-and-sour. I’m glad I persisted, as the soup was quite nice. Plenty of ingredients in a tasty broth, with some zest and a pleasing, rice wine tang. After I doctored it up with soy sauce it was maybe the best item in the meal.
A good rescue too, as I was marking the food as maybe average, and the service well below; enough to make it so I wouldn’t be back. Life’s too short for average restaurant fare and poor service! Sichuan Garden’s earned at least another chance, though. One of the menu’s headline points is that Sichuan Garden is a “Top 100 Chinese Restaurants” with high marks from Web ratings. Okay, they’re not there yet in my mind. We’ll see after another visit or two.
I finished up my meal and checked my list of errands to do. Time to get back on the road, with my lunch alarm silenced…
Sichuan Garden, 110 N IH-35, Suite 240, Round Rock, TX 78681. Phone 512.255.6952 & 512.238.0098. Casual Chinese dining for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Delivery available (limited area; delivery charges apply). Takeout available. No checks, please.
Enjoy the (Central China in Central Texas) Heat!
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