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Jun. 9, 2006:  Bellevue, WA. Szechuan Chef. Szechuan Chef has turned out to be one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, not only in the Seattle area, but anywhere. It is no wonder, since the owners had a number of years experience operating a restaurant in China before coming to the United States. For some reason they are able to produce authentic and delicious tasting Chinese cuisine that very few places in the U.S. are able to duplicate.

In most Chinese restaurants if you look at the "Szechuan" menu (if they even have one), the dishes are all highly spiced and have very little flavor other than from the chile (a lot of places just add red chile to their regular dishes and call it "Szechuan."). Sichuanese cooking, though, is highly varied and complex, as one discovers when looking at the menu of Szechuan Chef. There is probably as much variety of sauces and foods here as in most any Chinese restaurant, and not all of them are spicy.

An example of the excellent dishes here is the Chicken with Hot Garlic Sauce picutred below.

Chicken with Garlic Sauce

Even though it has a garlic sauce, it was not overly garlicy in flavor, but was a complex mixture of different ingredients. The sauce was great, the vegetables and chicken had a good variety, and this was one of the best dishes I tried at Szechuan Chef. This restaurant is not afraid to use the thick, oily authentic Szechuan sauce, and this added greatly to the flavor and enjoyment of the meal.

May 7, 2006:  El Paso, TX. Latest Chinese restaurant news. Moon Day was arguably the best Chinese restaurant in the El Paso area, and had food that far surpassed the average Americanized Chinese restaurant. Serving Mandarin (Beijing) style food, it provided delicate and balanced flavors that one could only dream about at the average Chinese buffet. Unfortunately it recently closed, leaving a void that only Sam's Chinese Restaurant and Joy Luck in Las Cruces can begin to fill. I found out, though, that Moon Day is probably not closed for good. It is planned to be reopened perhaps later this year at another location. In the meantime, Sam's has leased Moon Day's former location at Mesa and Resler, and if past experience is any indication, will provide some very good Chinese cooking. The owner of Sam's says that they plan to serve some items at the Mesa location that are similar to some of the dishes that were served at Moon Day, such as noodle dishes and some interesting soups.

After my recent experiences in Seattle, I am now downgrading the score of Sam's to make the ratings more consistent between cities. While I still think Sam's is quite good, it does not offer the variety of dishes, particularly authentic Chinese dishes, found at just about any of Seattle's better Chinese restaurants.

One of my favorite dishes, home style tofu (also known by various other names such as family style tofu, home style bean curd, etc.) serves as a good yardstick for rating Chinese restaurants. I recently had this dish at Yea's Wok in a Seattle suburb that I think should serve as the model by which to judge the versions at other restaurants. With a delicious sauce, excellent vegetables, and well cooked tofu, it is hard for others to measure up. The one at Sam's, while not as good as the one in Seattle, is one of the few to which I would still assign a five-star rating. There will likely be others, though, that will be re-evaluated. By lowering Sam's rating, but still saying that the Family Style Bean Cake is a five-star dish, it will probably provide a more realistic evaluation of the restaurant. I still think Sam's is excellent for the Southwest, and especially for El Paso.

May 6, 2006:  El Paso, TX. Mediterranean Food Festival at St. George Orthodox Church. The Mediterranean Food Festival is held every May, and qualifies as a chow-worthy event in a city that is largely devoid of quality ethnic food. The festival is a fund-raiser for the church, and includes food, music, dances, a bake sale, and other items for sale.

The food is served in two places: dinners are served inside a banquet hall and a la carte items are sold outside in a tent. The outside tent serves gyros, falafel, and other goodies that I was not able to try.

The dinner inside consists of a meal that I think would be worthy of most any Middle Eastern restaurant. Starting out with a Salata (salad), the lemon juice and olive oil dressing were a perfect complement to the cucumber and tomato vegetables.

Two main dishes were served: Fatayer Laham (meat pie) and Kibbeh (ground meat and burghul mixture). I would have much preferred that the pie be made of spinach, an item I frequently order at Middle Eastern restaurants. The kibbeh, though, was not only unusual, but very tasty, and one of the best items served.

Side dishes included Yakhnit Loubieh (green bean stew), made with chunks of beef, olive oil, and a tomato sauce. This was the most delicious items served, other than the dessert.

Baklawa was the highlight of the meal. The "menu" for the festival states "The pastry is difficult to make at home for it must be rolled very thin." This is undoubtedly the reason they never seem to be as good in restaurants as the ones here.

The whole meal seemed to be carefully prepared with the goal of showing off the best of Middle Eastern cooking. If this were a restaurant it would be one of the best in El Paso, but it is very hard for restaurants to produce home made cooking as is served here.

Apr. 23, 2006:  Yakima, WA. A great Mexican find. Washington seems to be either feast or famine when it comes to Mexican food. Either you get horrible melted Velveeta cheese with a tasteless sauce, or you might find a gem such as Birriería Apatzingán Restaurant, that I discovered in Yakima. About a block south is a large Mexican market with its own taquería restaurant. I was able to get some recommendations from people there for some good Mexican restaurants in town, but Apatzingán seemed the most promising (although I think there are some other good places in Yakima, including a Mexican seafood restaurant farther north on N. 1st Street that was recommended.

Birriería Apatzingán is located in an old house that is so unattractive it would probably drive away most non-hispanic customers before they ever go in to try the food. Inside, however, the restaurant is clean, and some terrific food is offered. The family that owns it is from the Mexican state of Michoacán, with Apatzingán being the name of the town from which they come. The food is also authentically prepared the way it would be in their home town. I have traveled through some of the central Mexican states including México, Hidalgo, and Querétaro, and the food here is about as close as I have found in the United States to the flavor and style that is served in the heart of Mexico.

Upon the recommendation of the owner, I ordered Enchiladas al Estilo Apatzingán that are served with chicken on the side. It also comes with quail or beef, with quail being the specialty of the house.


This was an excellent meal, and tasted even better than it looks in the photo. The strawberry milk shake, chips, and salsa were excellent as well. Nothing here tasted as if it were "Americanized," or that the owners had cut corners to serve anything less than a truly authentic meal.

Jan. 29, 2006:  Oklahoma City, OK. Chinese New Year. My family is not Chinese, so this presented a dilemma for me on Chinese New Year. I had spent several holidays in El Paso, Texas, where there are few choices for good Chinese food, fewer still that are open on holidays, and none that serve banquets or "special occasion" meals. I did not want to pass up the opportunity to celebrate Chinese New Year in Oklahoma City, where there are several restaurants that offer food that is appropriate for the occasion. I had talked to the people at First Chinese B-B-Q Restaurant, and they said they did not plan to offer any special dishes for New Year. I drove by California Cafe, and it looked crowded, but I do not know if they were offering anything special for New Year.

My dilemma was that Chinese New Year is supposed to be celebrated with family, and I think mine had already had enough holidays to really be thrilled about celebrating one from a different culture (even though this one only involved eating food). I found an Adventurous Family Member (or "AFM"), though, and we were off to Grand House on Classen Boulevard. This seems to be the most popular restaurant with the Chinese community, and it was hard to find a parking space when we arrived about 1:00 p.m. In fact the crowd was so big they opened portions of the dining room that were not normally used, and I think the staff was overwhelmed by the number of people there.

Grand House normally serves dim sum on Sundays, and I do not know if the same is true for Chinese New Year when it falls on a weekday. We had barely been seated, and had not even received our drinks yet, when a tray came around with my favorite dim sum dish here: fried leek and shrimp. I don't normally even eat shrimp, but this is so delicious, and is even better with a Chinese style sweet and sour sauce (not the Americanized sickly sweet sauce), that it is hard to resist. AFM thought this was good as well, so I at least know that that my tastes in dim sum are not totally out of the range of what other people consider good.

Other trays (and a couple of carts) came around, but we did not want to get any more dishes until we got our drinks. I finally decided to track down the manager to ask for drinks, and we still did not receive them until he came around to the table quite a while later. Still, the trays kept coming with fresh choices, so we got one made with steamed noodles. As I had learned from past experience, nothing else at Grand House seems to be as good as the fried shrimp and leek dim sum, but the other dish was still good. I got a clay pot dish to supplement the dim sum, and that was our meal.

For New Year, though, they were offereing special desserts, so we had to try the special New Year's cake with a red color, soft, but pan-fried so that you could pick it up without the ends breaking off as it would if it were left in its soft natural state. The cake was good, and best of all, was included in the "A" menu category, the least expensive group of dishes served.

I thought California Cafe had better dim sum when I tried it earlier, but Grand House seems to be a great place to come for a festive occasion, despite the slow service.

Chinese New Year's Cake (Neen Gow)

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