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July 08, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 08, 2005

Here comes the Sun Here comes the Sun (July 08, 2005)

Szechwan Cafe owner caters to his clientele

by Dale F. Bentson

Szechwan Cafe on California Street is not one the Bay Area's premier eateries. It is not even distinguished as a repository of grand Chinese cuisine.

It is, though, one of those solid restaurants that helps define a neighborhood. For the past 12 and a half years owner Adam Sun has provided comforting, healthy food at affordable prices without hoopla and unnecessary garnish.

The menu is paradigmatic of most casual Chinese-American restaurants, offering a mind-jarring number of choices that run the gamut of soup, meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, rice, noodles, tofu and chow mein. If a diner cannot decide what to order, the affable Sun will most likely come up with something special.

Sun learned about managing restaurants while working for 10 years for his now-retired brother at the latter's Chinese restaurant in San Jose. Now, his brother assists him at the Szechwan Cafe.

Sun immigrated to the West Coast from Taiwan to study chemistry and computer sciences but found restaurant management much more exciting. He is an accomplished albeit self-taught classical guitarist and flutist as well. Occasionally, he can be coaxed into playing the flute for his patrons. He has his own CD, "Reflections," available through the restaurant.

Sun is almost always on hand to answer questions, suggest dishes and take care of his customers. From what I could surmise, there is a steady and loyal clientele at the restaurant. On my first visit, after asking a few questions about what to order, a woman at an adjacent table turned and suggested I just "let Adam take care of everything."

It was good advice.

Deep-fried items are particularly good at Szechwan Cafe. I liked starting with the fried egg rolls ($4.50) -- crisp and non-greasy on the outside with fresh-tasting cabbage, carrots and onion on the inside. The chicken salad ($6.95), crunchy and crisp, was large enough to share as an appetizer while the steamy hot fish rolls (red snapper, $4.95) were delicate and subtle.

Vegetarian pot stickers ($4.95) were extra large, savory and chock full of fresh vegetables. The hot and sour soup ($5.25) was made from chicken broth, onions, mushrooms, tofu and other ingredients. It had an earthy and intriguing flavor.

Szechwan cooking is distinguished by the hot peppers indigenous to southwestern China. Szechwan peppercorns are small reddish-brown berries that grow on a shrub -- not on a vine as peppers do -- and are not true peppers. The husks or "fruit" lend a distinctive fragrance and flavor and leave a curiously numbing effect on the tongue -- quite different from the pungency of pepper or the sting and burn of chili. Nothing I tasted at Szechwan Cafe was overly "hot."

Shredded pork with spicy garlic sauce ($8.25) included a small salad and I added a side of steamed rice ($1). The large portion was marred by an overabundance of celery, though, and I could taste little else. This dish had an asterisk on the menu, connoting "spicy," although I did not find it particularly so.

Mu Shu pork ($8.25) was a dish of stir-fried vegetables, egg and shredded pork served with thin pancakes designed to be filled and wrapped. Mu Shu pork was, for years, the most popular Chinese restaurant dish in America. At Szechwan Cafe, thin pork strips were stir-fried, then combined with a colorful array of fresh vegetables. The Mu Shu-filled pancake was then rolled up like a cigar and dipped in a thick, flavorful sauce similar to hoisin. Mu Shu is also offered in chicken, shrimp and vegetable.

Deep-fried chicken in garlic sauce ($8.25) was spicier on the tongue than any other dish I tried. A generous portion of delicate white chicken chunks were coated with a gooey, peppery, pink-orange sauce that stood out from most of the other fare. This dish had more than passing personality. The mingled scents reminded me of early morning strolls through Chinatown.

Tossed in a mellow paste of fermented black beans, soy, rice wine, oil and chicken broth, the chicken with black bean sauce ($8.25) had chunks of tender white meat. Everything on the plate was abundantly fresh and aromatic, exuding a bevy of fragrances. Many of the main dishes are adorned with cutesy sculpted vegetables. All dinners are served family style and intended for sharing.

Fresh flowers adorn each table and the space is bright, clean and inviting, but unexciting. It is not a romantic setting, but rather, a place to relax and engage in conversation in a non-hurried environment. The service was always attentive and my ice tea glass rarely diminished to half before it was automatically refilled.

Szechwan Cafe offers no desserts, although a small plate of sculpted fresh fruit was presented at the conclusion of my dinners. The beer, wine and sake list was scanty but serviceable.

Lunch is a good value with 30-odd daily specials priced $6.95-$7.95. Each luncheon special includes choice of entree, a cup of soup, small salad and steamed rice.

Szechwan Cafe will probably never win any culinary awards, which is OK, because how often does one frequent award-winning expensive restaurants? This is a homey place for a nutritious lunch or an after-work dinner, either alone, with the family or a larger group.

Reservations: yes
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: beer and sake
Children: yes
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: no
Take out: yes
Catering: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: okay

Szechwan Cafe, 406 California Ave. in Palo Alto; (650) 327-1688;

Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Dinner Monday-Saturday 4:30-9 p.m.

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