Outside of visiting family and the occasional trip out to Grand Asia Market, I rarely venture out to the Cary/Morrisville area except for one reason: the ethnic restaurants. Raleigh, in general, lacks a half-decent cluster of ethnic restaurants, especially those of the East Asian variety, that warrant repeat visits. So, when I heard rumblings that Morrisville’s Orient Garden had recently transformed into Szechuan Garden, a Chinese restaurant that catered to more authentic tastes, I knew that a voyage to the dizzying land of monochromatic beige strip malls was in order.
You’ll notice little hint that change has taken place at the modest storefront. The “Orient Garden” signage still hangs above. Inside, vestiges of the old restaurant, including the lustrous tile dragon mural, all remain.
When I ask the server for a copy of the take-out menu, he politely demurs, citing that the new ones had yet to be printed but would be ready in two weeks. What has assuredly changed is the regular menu, which now is chock full of Szechuan menu items that make good, liberal use out of the mouth-numbing peppercorn.
My husband and I start out tepidly with a lime green bowl (that still says “Orient Garden”) of chicken and seafood soup (for two), a lightly-thickened stock mixed with egg whites and flecks of chicken and crab meat. On a Friday night, it’s a soothing antidote to the long work week and it gives me time to look around to take note that the dining room has become crowded with Chinese families and international college students pining for a taste of the homeland while huddled around the circular tables that populate the space.
We careen mouth first towards the heat, eyeing the mapo tofu, but opt for an order of the spicy fish fillets with soft tofu and then an order of the stewed beef off the chef’s list of specials. The spicy, tender fish fillets, in its ceramic dish, come in an ample portion, swimming in a fiery scarlet red Szechuan peppercorn-inflected viscous sauce with little buoys of soft tofu slivers floating in between. Pair this heat-intense dish with the 90-degree sweltering heat and humidity outside, and you might ask for more paper napkins like I did, to dab the occasional beads of sweat off your forehead in between bites.
Szechuan Garden’s version of stewed beef brisket may undermine its promising potential as the new authentic entry into the Morrisville Chinese restaurant scene. The generous portion, fit for serving family-style, doesn’t quite make up for the sinewy chunks of beef that requires way too much jaw-wrenching exercise, clearly a sign that it hasn’t stewed for quite enough time to completely tenderize. Still, the aromatic star anise perfumed flavor is still there and the silky, sautéed emerald green strands of boy choy that nest underneath the pile of beef chunks somewhat absolves the dish’s misgivings.
As word begins to circulate in the surrounding community, Szechuan Garden is poised to become the next new hotspot for authentic Chinese food. Good for Morrisville, I say. My only lament? Selfishly, that it’s not located closer to me in Raleigh.
SZECHUAN GARDEN | 10285 Chapel Hill Road #300 Morrisville NC 27560 | 919.468.6878