My job requires that I eat out a lot. Further, it behooves me to lunch with movers and shakers in the local dining scene, which amounts to chefs, restaurateurs, wine brokers, foodies, bloggers and local producers.
So, I do a lot of lunch coordinating. Some places inspire more conviction than others. These days, the fastest way to get a group of foodies, chefs, restaurateurs and wine brokers in lock step is to say, in order: Szechuan Bistro.
That's because Szechuan Bistro, 1010 W Memorial Road, is among the best Asian restaurants in Oklahoma City. If you haven't been there yet, I thank you for making it easier to find a table at this charming neighborhood eatery in far north Oklahoma City.
That said, I've kept this gem a secret for too long. Selfishly, I've resisted writing a story about Szechuan Bistro, concocting all sorts of reasons why when the truth lay in my subconscious: I wanted to keep it all to myself.
I mentioned the place in a column last month as the standard-bearer for fine Asian fare outside the Asian District, and I stand by the statement. Szechuan Bistro isn't necessarily doing anything no else is doing. Owners Yuan Ren Chen, 36, and his wife, Xiu Mie, 35, are simply doing things right.
Both of Chinese heritage and growing up in restaurant-running families, these two know how to operate a restaurant and have been doing it long enough to recognize the rising demand of traditional Chinese cuisine. At Szechuan Bistro, guests can choose dishes from two menus: one with the aforementioned authentic offerings and one with the Anglicized dishes born in Chinese strongholds such as New York City and San Francisco.
A trip to Houston about a decade ago convinced Yuan Ren, who also goes by Leo, that authentic Chinese food was viable in Oklahoma City. The success of authentic Vietnamese and Chinese dishes that have gradually found their way to Oklahoma City menus at Chow's, et al., didn't hurt.
Fresh and flavorful
The tenet that elevates Szechuan to the top of Oklahoma City's Asian eateries is use of fresh ingredients.
Xiu Mie, who also goes by Sophia, said they use fresh, whole ingredients for every dish.
That explains why at 10 a.m., the large kitchen within an old Burger King by way of Ricky's Mexican Cafe is abuzz with activity. At least a dozen cooks in white file in, out and around the cooking space as if they're late for the subway but know all the shortcuts how to get there on time.
A half-dozen industrial-sized woks are revved and ready, with one wok at the end of the line big enough to bathe a baby elephant. As 11 a.m. nears, the frenetic pace rises, but there is no wasted motion.
When orders start to come in, the kitchen turns into a ballet of flashing blades, ready flame and scattershot sizzle. Then the bell rings at the expo counter, signaling the arrival of pristine and camera-ready dishes of Kung Pao Chicken, Mango Chicken with Garlic Sauce, Jumbo Szechuan Spicy Shrimp, Crispy Whole Flounder in Sweet and Sour Sauce, Spicy Ox Tongue and Tripe and Hot and Spicy Sliced Fish in Clay Pot.
Flavors are bold. Wise diners will be seated at a big round table with a lazy Susan in the center awaiting the procession of palate candy with one goal: keep ol' Susan spinning until the fish is picked clean and all that remains is a smattering of blackened dried chiles and a few grains of steamed rice on a half-dozen or so deserted dishes.
Your only complaint might be Chinese cuisine's rejection of the magic of baking, meaning several luscious sauces shall go unsopped. So, ask for a little more of that steamed rice to avoid wasting perfectly prepared sauce.
Service with smiles
Members of the Chen family are quick to smile and quicker to satiate your appetite.
At 19, Sophia moved to Eufaula from Fujian — which is just across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan in mainland China — to open a Chinese restaurant. She moved to North Carolina shortly after to work in another Chinese restaurant. That's where she met Yuan Ren, and they began a two-year courtship that led to marriage and then kids.
Leo does a lot of cooking but said his brother Yuan Zhong Chen is the chef and mastermind behind some of the city's most exciting foods.
The dish that has made this a chef magnet might not be one that appeals to the masses. It is the Spicy Ox Tongue and Tripe, sliced ultra thin, slathered in a sauce that literally bites back and served room temperature or a couple degrees below. The sauce is heavy on oil infused with Szechuan peppercorns. The result is a sauce capable of making your mouth glow in the dark. A gulp of water will only spread the well-intended hurt. Chef Kurt Fleischfresser likens it to sticking the tip of your tongue into the business end of a 9-volt battery and developing an addiction to the sensation. I call it some of the best Tuesday afternoons of my life.
Fair warning: The best of Szechuan Bistro registers on the spicy end. That isn't to say Szechuan Bistro doesn't cater to more cautious palates, but it would be disingenuous not to admit the fiery arts are celebrated more ardently here.
Szechuan Bistro joins the ranks of Grand House, Golden Phoenix, Chow's and Dot Wo at the top of the heap of Asian cuisine. And they throw a heck of a Chinese New Year party for repeat customers.
Go with a group, and be adventurous!
If you go
Szechuan Bistro, 1010 W Memorial Road, is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with hours extended to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Delivery is available to a limited area and with a $15 minimum.
For more information, call 752-8889 or go online to szechuanbistro.com