On a scorching mid-week lunch hour, the dining room at Szechuan’s Dumpling in Arlington Heights is three-quarters full. Among the tables are two couples, a few high schoolers already looking bored with summer vacation, and lots of families, about half of which are Chinese-American. Rambunctious little ones nibble on scallion pancakes and juicy pork dumplings. Their parents slurp thick noodles from a shared steaming hot pot. Service is attentive, restrooms clean, parking a breeze.
We are more than willing to circle Beach Street, or hop on the T to Chinatown for good Chinese food, when a craving for the numbing, salty, fiery flavors of Sichuan province strikes. The last thing we are worried about is ambience. But an accessible, suburban spot like this one, serving consistent food, in a setting even your squeamish, crab-Rangoon loving teenager will abide? That’s a welcome addition to any neighborhood.
What brought us here in the first place are the dumplings. Soup dumplings, which on the menu appear as pork mini juicy dumplings ($6.75) are on the first visit slouchy, plump perfection, just bursting with rich broth and tender meat. On another visit, they are slightly overcooked, some of the soup has seeped out, and the meat is the tiniest bit tensed up from a few minutes too long in the steamer. Still delicious and that doesn’t stop us from polishing them off. We order pork and chive dumplings ($6.25) fried — you can get them steamed, but you’ll miss out on that beautiful golden crust. Either way, the not-too-thick skins are in perfect proportion to the porky, oniony centers. Shandong pan-fried dumplings ($6.25) are garlicky, generous, pork-filled crescents. Good luck picking a favorite.
If you can make it for a weekday lunch, you’re in for a bargain: $6.95 for an extensive list of lunch specials with soup and rice. Bring a friend and get your pick of any three dishes ($19.95), which is exactly what we did. We pick ma po tofu, the popular dish of silky tofu cubes in a bright red sauce of thickened chicken stock, ginger, soy, garlic, chilies, and Szechuan peppercorns, which is garnished with crispy ground pork. It’s savory, with that ma-la (numbing heat) we are seeking, but it’s a gentler version of the dish we are used to.
A second pick is twice-cooked pork, which brings more heat, with crispy pork belly, first braised, then fried with tender-crisp green cabbage, and a sauce that has us reaching for our icy Tsingtao beers after every few bites. For our third dish, we ask for a vegetable recommendation and our waitress points to black mushroom and Shanghai greens with oyster sauce. The poker-chip-size mushrooms are cheery, meaty little orbs sprouting from what looks like a lawn of baby bok choy. Earthy, fresh, and flavorful, without the numbing heat of the other dishes, it is a welcome contrast. The accompanying soup is really just a few pale soy beans floating in chicken broth, so it gets pushed aside as we attempt to finish the other dishes. We don’t even come close.
Dinner includes the unhappy revelation that the seafood dishes leave a lot to be desired. We start with oyster pancake ($5.95), which looks like a runny, curdled omelet. You can blame our aversion to the consistency on gelatinous-averse Western palates, but a fishy oyster is bad. After two tenuous bites, we push the plate to the far reaches of the table.
Hoping that was an anomaly, we order the whole fish with Szechuan spicy chili sauce ($19.95). The fish arrives bathed in gloriously fire-red broth with a slick of chili oil, teeming with scallion rings and dried red peppers. The fish is cooked perfectly — crispy fried skin with a moist tender interior — but none of this masks the muddy, slightly metallic taste of poor-quality farm-raised tilapia. A better quality fish should get this fine treatment.
Happily, that fire-red broth appears in beef stew noodle soup ($6.95) and we devour it by the spoonful with tender meat and springy noodles. Our favorite peapod stems aren’t available this time of year so the server recommends sauteed water spinach ($6.95). A dining companion, who generally turns his nose up at leafy greens and manages his chopsticks awkwardly, finds the greens so delicious, he reaches for a fork, which someone has set on the table without him even asking. This is the kind of place for everyone to unabashedly dig in.