Sucking the chili oil sheen from a frog's leg, my Taiwanese wife gives Zengming Chen her highest accolade: "He could survive in Taipei." To survive in Taipei is to soar in the Triangle. Chen has long been—and remains—the Triangle's best Chinese chef.
Chen arrived from Philadelphia in 2008, instantly transforming Cary's Super Wok into a destination restaurant for knowing Sinophiles. Chen's searing Sichuan cuisine brought tears to the eye. Sinus inflammation explained some of this dew, elation the rest.
Coincidentally, I was Chen's first-ever Super Wok customer. I happened into the restaurant ten minutes after an airport cab had deposited him there. As I sniffed at the generic Thai-Chinese menu, the waitress said, "Our new chef just got here—he cooks Sichuan, very spicy. Want to try?" Among easily answered questions, this ranks with, "Would you like a free upgrade to first-class?"
Chen, having returned from a four-month hiatus in China that had me on tenterhooks, has now opened his own restaurant: Szechuan Garden, at 10285 Chapel Hill Road (Hwy. 54), a few minutes southwest of RDU. Orient Garden previously occupied the space, and the awning confusingly continues to bear the defunct restaurant's name.
Szechuan Garden is a Super Wok reincarnation. Déjà vu governs the nondescript strip-mall setting; the modest, cleanly room without music or television; the maternal bustle as Chen's wife rearranges the table to make room for another dish; the Styrofoam boxes in plastic bags awaiting pickup; the acridity of Sichuan peppercorn in the air.
Chen reprises all of the Super Wok classics. As the table begins to groan with old favorites—West Lake soup, squirrel tail fish, tri-pepper chicken, cumin lamb, lotus root with diced pork belly—I begin to feel reconciled to the Triangle. It may not be an expatriate Chinese food capital like Vancouver or Toronto, but then again, it's neither exorbitant nor frostbitten. It occurs to me that Morrisville, USA, is a pretty good GPS location, even in terms of Chinese food.
Chen's cold appetizers express his subtlest craft and represent the pinnacle of local Asian cuisine. These dishes feature chicken breast, chicken gizzard, dried beef, tripe—whatever's available—dressed in a spectrum of Sichuan chili sauces. Unlike the Chinese sauces sold in gallon jugs by industrial food distributors, these are vibrant with dualities, insinuations, evocations of terroir. They may even encode personal memories, fragments of worldview. A native of Fuzhou with almost no English, Chen speaks through his sauces.
"A good sauce needs the right herbs," Chen told me in 2012, with my wife translating. "You cannot take the easy route and omit this or that. Every herb must come from Sichuan. Without authentic Sichuan herbs, you cannot make authentic Sichuan sauces; without authentic Sichuan sauces, you cannot make authentic Sichuan dishes."
My wife long petitioned the Chens to serve fish ball soup. They long replied that fish balls are a pain in the ass. Generations of Chens have run a fish ball shop in Fuzhou, which makes my wife's campaign a matter worth pressing. The parties have at least reached an accord: Chen pledges to offer fish balls as an occasional special.
Purists must be wary of the menu's few sops to the Harris Teeter palate. "Sesame Chicken" might be a specialty of the Sichuan countryside; then again, it might be—and in fact is—a General Tso's mutation. At lunchtime, there are the usual combos, a mainstay of hurried calorie-packers from nearby Research Triangle Park. At $6.95 for soup, egg roll, and a mound of something familiar, the deal is good, even if the cuisine is compromised.
Spice-averse and kid-handcuffed diners needn't resort to fried rice. I recommend the sautéed pork with scallion, a simple stir-fry of julienned pork and onion with a mild hoisin-inflected smokiness. I even more heartily recommend the spectacular squirrel tail fish—a pair of hefty deep-fried flounder filets in a pea- and mushroom-studded sweet-and-sour sauce. Ingeniously scored, the filets coil into squirrel tail facsimiles when fried. Having a young daughter who's tickled by the "squirrel" conceit, I have rarely escaped the task of downing one of these filets.
Certain dishes have the deceptive innocuousness of a Bill Evans tune. The silky melon—emerald wedges floating in a slightly thickened broth—is a study in understated flavor and texture. The West Lake soup, a cornstarchy broth suspending a colorful, petite dice of ground beef, carrot, mushroom, and silky melon, is another exercise in quiet intricacy.
Szechuan Garden solidifies Morrisville's status as a foodie epicenter (foodie: one who does not drink flavored martinis or comment on the lighting). The Davis Drive-Chapel Hill Road corridor includes some twelve Indian restaurants; Dim Sum House, a cart-equipped weekend draw; C&T Wok, a begrimed nook that caters to Chinese college students pining for a blunt dose of what Grandma used to cook; Taipei Cafe, a less begrimed version of the same; Taste and Pho 919, the Vietnamese equivalents, the former better than the latter; and Neomonde, the western outpost of Raleigh's popular Middle Eastern bakery and cafe.
Szechuan Garden is notable even amid this banquet geography. Its deeper merits are not obvious, however; you must notice, somewhere in the indistinct recesses of nose and throat, a smoky incense, a savor of something far away.
This article appeared in print with the headline "No Easy Route"