Once every month we use our newsletter as an excuse to get out from behind our desks and take a company trip for a local restaurant review. For the staff of CeSI, it is becoming more than just a free meal. It is a chance to push our culinary boundaries.

For most of my life I have pretended that I make an interesting and daring meal choice when I choose Panda Express. This past month however, I decided to admit to myself that I have no clue what real Chinese food is.

Our monthly trip was the perfect opportunity to step out of my comfort zone. When given the chance to pick this month’s restaurant I was careful to pick something different. Typically I would have tried to find the area’s best burger. Not this time, I was on a mission.

I went online to find something different and authentic. I went to Yelp.com to find what people in the area recommended. Knowing others recommend the restaurant gave me the confidence to try something different. If this decision had a studio audience and a celebrity host, going to Yelp was the equivalent of asking the audience. With any chance of eating somewhere interesting ever again on the line I had to make the right decision. The restaurant I decided upon was Szechuan First in Kent, WA.

You can usually get a good sense of a restaurant from the number of people in the place. So my nerves were worsened when there were plenty of empty tables. However, as soon as the first dish arrived my fears were alleviated. This food looked good, smelled good, and most importantly tasted good. And by the time we left, almost every table in the restaurant was occupied. We beat the rush.

We all ordered something different and shared all of our orders. We may have gone a bit overboard; apparently our eyes were bigger than our stomachs. Between five people we ordered:

  • Kung Pow Chicken
  • Fried Dumplings
  • Smoked Duck
  • Beef & Broccoli
  • Chicken with Vegetables
  • Egg Rolls
  • Sweet Potato Pancakes
  • Ong-Choy (aka Swamp Cabbage)

This came with soup and tea as well.

Let’s do the math on this. That’s eight plates of food. Five bowls of soup. Five cups of tea. Eight plus five, carry the one, round to the nearest whole number… Yup, that is a lot of food for five people.

As we ate were able to identify a few things that really set Szechuan First apart. Too many restaurants fill your plate with vegetables without enough meat, this was not the case at this restaurant, plenty of both were provided. Another important factor was that each dish had its own flavor. Another problem with many Chinese food restaurants, many use the same sauce for all the dishes and everything tastes the same. All too often this same generic sauce ends up soaking the vegetables, making them soggy and unappetizing. Neither was the case here. In fact, one of the advantages of ordering so many things was that we were able to taste so many different flavors, and each was unique.

The Fried Dumplings were awesome. Even though they brought us a plate of probably more than 30 dumplings it was the first dish to disappear. This was an appetizer, but if I went back I might just order a plate of these for myself.

The Smoked Duck was one of the day’s specials. Unfortunately this was the one dish that we weren’t all that crazy about. The duck was a bit dry, but the crunchy skin was tasty. I don’t eat a lot of duck, so it is hard to say if the issue is that I didn’t enjoy how it was prepared or if I just don’t appreciate duck.

The Sweet Potato Pancakes were really tasty and different than what any of us usually have for dessert. This was similar to an orange colored donut. It was crisp on the outside but sweet and sugary on the inside with a sweet filling too. It tasted great, and since a sweet potato is close enough to a vegetable we could pretend it wasn’t completely unhealthy for us.

What I ordered was the Szechuan Chicken. This was reportedly pretty spicy. In my experience anything spicy can’t taste too bad. Another constant among foods is anything chicken is usually alright too. Since I was nervous about branching out, a spicy chicken dish seemed alright. The dish actually wasn’t all that spicy, which is good because it would have covered up some of the other flavors. This was a really flavorful dish. The meat had been marinated in a really yummy salty sauce. If you’re trying to cut back on your salt stay away, otherwise make sure someone in your group orders this if you go to Szechuan First.

Probably the most interesting dish that we tried was Ong-Choy. We saw this brought to another table and asked what it was. When we heard the name we looked for it on the menu, but couldn’t find it. This was a traditional Asian dish that wasn’t on the menu. We were excited, it was akin to ordering off the secret menu, but instead of Animal Fries it was Ong-Choy (aka Swamp Cabbage). Imagine a salty and buttered green bean with garlic. As a kid who always hated eating his green beans at dinner, I can say that these were surprisingly good.

The décor of the restaurant was really nice too. The tables were marble or faux marble, the walls had wood etched drawings and Chinese characters. There are plenty of restaurants where you want to eat your meal and take off, but this was a place you could stay and relax.

We actually stayed for a while after we finished. We sat sipping tea, talking about our unique meal. Admittedly it might have been in part that none of us wanted to head back to work. But it was a nice place to sit and enjoy the afternoon regardless.

By the end of the meal my taste buds weren’t offended and my fears were unwarranted. I was pleasantly surprised and even though my desire to test my culinary bravery has ceased, I would gladly go back. Apparently so would my coworkers and rightfully so.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to feel as adventurous anymore when I go to Panda Express.