Jellyfish with roasted chili vinaigrette. Salt and pepper pig’s feet. Chinese loofah and bamboo shoots. Intestines with pickles. These are not the sorts of menu items one finds in most of Utah’s Chinese restaurants. For dishes like those, you’ll need to brave the exotic hinterlands of â€¦ Sandy.
I first heard about Szechuan Garden from a fellow who has, in his own words, “eaten Chinese food in restaurants worldwide.” “This chef is good,” said Blake. “Apparently Chinese folks from all over the region are driving long distances to eat here, as well as people making regular runs from Provo to downtown and north,” he wrote. That was certainly enough to pique my interest. And then a colleague contacted me to say he’d recently had dinner at Szechuan Garden with a professor of Asian philosophy, and they also thought the food was terrific and authentic.
Nevertheless, it was hard to hide my disappointment while perusing the Szechuan Garden menu on my first visit. There was all the standard stuff: ham fried rice ($6.95), Kung Pao chicken ($7.95), vegetable chow mein ($6.95), sweet and sour pork ($8.95), and so on. “You don’t make dan dan noodles, do you?” I asked.
This, as it turns out, was a crucial question, because Helen Cai, the co-owner of Szechuan Garden, turned to me and said, “Oh, you like real Chinese food!” With that, she produced a leather bound menu filled on the front with Chinese script. Thankfully, the menu items inside were listed in both Chinese and English. As soon as I saw the pickled chicken feet with red pepper appetizer ($6.95), I knew I’d struck gold!
Why would a Chinese master chef of 35 years'Chef Chaopin Meng'leave Boston’s highly rated Sichuan Garden to open a Chinese restaurant in Sandy, Utah? Well according to Meng’s business partner Cai'Meng doesn’t speak much English'Meng’s daughter lives in Utah. When she had a baby earlier this year, Mr. and Mrs. Meng wanted to be close to their first grandchild and moved here. Coincidentally, Cai was looking for work when she met Meng in church several months ago. One conversation led to another, and about three months ago, they opened Szechuan Garden in Sandy. Not all great restaurants are the result of market surveys and elaborate business plans. Some are simply the child of circumstance and necessity.
Szechuan Garden is more appealing visually than I’d expected a Sandy strip mall restaurant to be. Forest green banquettes and chairs with black-lacquer frames provide eye-catching contrast to red carpeting and light pastel-green walls. There are exotic plants, trees and flowers throughout the restaurant'and all of them are real. This is an aptly named restaurant: It looks like a garden. Helen is especially fond of an 8-foot palm in the middle dining room. “It cost $300!” she says proudly.
High ceilings and soothing Chinese music add to the spacious feel of the three distinct dining rooms. It’s a roomy restaurant, but seems intimate. Large, gorgeous, 3-D bronze-colored murals highlight a large wall on the kitchen side of the Szechuan Garden.
Service at Szechuan Garden'mostly from staffers who speak little English'couldn’t be more friendly. But in the end, it’s the food that makes this restaurant rock. Now, I suppose I could bash Meng for his sweet lemon chicken ($7.95) or the run-of-the-mill fried egg rolls served at lunch. But Sandy isn’t Chinatown, and those are popular dishes; not everyone is going to order the 4-way abalone ($35). So I could complain that Szechuan Garden isn’t authentic enough. Then again, I’ve never been to China, and for all I know the Chinese might delight in lemon chicken the way some finicky kids I know did.
The way I see it, menu items like cream-cheese wontons and pineapple chicken are crowd-pleasers. They help pay the bills at Szechuan Garden. But they also allow Meng the flexibility to offer the “real stuff” along with simpler cuisine designed for American palates. The first Chinese dish I ever ate'and the only Chinese dish I ate for years'was ham fried rice. We all have to begin somewhere.
But I’d also add that even sweet-and-sour dishes like Tiny Spicy Chicken ($7.95) at Szechuan Garden are superior to those served in most restaurants. Meng creates all of his sauces from scratch, and the rich Port-colored chili sauce that envelopes the batter-fried chicken strips is a beautiful balance of sweet, spicy and sour flavors.
At Szechuan Garden, even a relatively simple Szechuan classic like mapo dofu is special. Cubes of fresh tofu are bathed in a thick spicy chili broth with sautÃ©ed minced pork and green onions. But there’s also a wonderful floral fragrance and flavor that I couldn’t quite identify. A friend suggested lavender but I’m thinking Meng might be using imported Szechuan peppers, which are actually a fruit with an aromatic component and quite different from regular red chili peppers. My lack of Chinese language prevented me from getting to the bottom of that mystery.
But my rudimentary Chinese is bound to improve, because I plan to be spending a lot of time working my way through Chef Meng’s menu. After all, I’ve yet to try his Szechuan spicy frog legs.