Sichuan Sidepiece

Szechuan Omei delivers, but not without some flaws

Heather Hoch

Everyone has their go-to dining spots—the kinds of places you find yourself stumbling into on near autopilot time and time again. Then there are the backups—the places that aren't necessarily your first pick, but they can get the job done in a pinch or add some much needed diversity into a stale dining routine.

If Szechuan Omei is a sidepiece, as it were, know that the restaurant located off of Speedway Boulevard just east of Tucson Boulevard has been around. Our server said the restaurant had been serving Sichuan fare for 46 years, although she had only worked there for a little over a year. The age actually makes sense when you look at the décor and signage, which definitely carry a '70s vibe to this day. The plates all read "Szechuan Omei Restaurant" in script lettering—a dated but also delightful touch. I'm a sucker for kitschy dishware.

True, the nearly 50-year-old spot is a little dingy at this point, though it's not as if it demands an update since it just makes the restaurant all the more charming. However, the 10-page menus do look a little worse for wear, partially unbound with menu changes taped over old offerings.

Deciding what to get off of that massive menu can be a bit of a task, but the helpful "chef's recommendations" highlighted at the top of the menu's different sections or simply going for one of the three set family dinner options are as good of a place as any to start if you're feeling particularly indecisive. For lunch, special pricing is at $5.95 per meal, which is a definite steal.

To drink, the restaurant offers standard choices like hot jasmine or green tea, chrysanthemum tea and iced Thai tea as well as less expected options like soy milk and cans of cold and creamy coconut milk. Szechuan Omei also serves sake ($6 per glass), plum wine ($6.50 per glass) and six options of red, white and blush wines available by the bottle ($21 to $29) or glass ($6 to $7.50). Bottles of domestic and imported beer are just $3.95.

Unfortunately, appetizers at Szechuan Omei start the meal off on a sour note. Some level of morbid curiosity or nostalgia led to me ordering a pair of egg rolls ($2.95), which took over 15 minutes to get to the table after ordering, despite the fact that the restaurant was nearly empty when I ordered them. Once at the table, the egg roll's lightly spiced filling had good flavor but were cold in the middle. The Kuo-Teh potstickers (six for $7.95) didn't suffer the same temperature issues, but were bland overall, even when drenched in the accompanying chili vinegar sauce.

If you're looking for something to try before your main dish arrives, it's probably best to go for a soup. Straying from ubiquitous egg flower or hot and sour soups, the Peking won ton soup ($2.75 for a small and $6.95 for a large) is a tasty pinkish broth filled with handmade Chinese dumplings with sweet and savory barbecue pork in the middle. The sizzling rice soup ($9.25) is satisfying both in flavor and texturally. The crunchy (actually) fried rice sits on top of a comforting chicken-based broth filled with bok choy, mushrooms, beef, chicken and shrimp. However, it did take an additional 15 minutes after our appetizer arrived to get the soup to the table.

It is easy to forgive dishes having long ticket times if you aren't in a rush because the service is very accommodating and gracious in the front of the house. Plus, most times it seems there is just one server to take care of all of the guests.

Continuing on with the meal when you visit Szechuan Omei is best done family - style, as each dish offers something very different. Although they offer a whole roast Peking duck for $39.95 with a 24-hour notice requirement, those looking to get their fowl fix the day of can go for the flavored crispy duck ($15.25), which is half of a duck steamed and then fried. Admittedly, the duck was almost as much bone as it was meat, but the aromatic, crunchy skin made it worth it.

For something lighter, the sizzling vegetables with crispy rice ($9.25) takes that same sizzling rice from the soup and mixes it with soft, velvety bean curd and lightly sautéed veggies like broccoli, mushrooms, celery, carrots and snow peas in a salty, nearly translucent sauce. On the darker side, the pork with satay sauce ($9.95) serves up thin slices of barbecue pork with onions and celery in a plate-licking richly spiced sauce.

If you have to have your starches, skip the fried rice and chow mein and opt, instead, for the Singapore Mei Fun ($9.95), which, despite being a little dry, gave the perfect amount of heat to rice vermicelli with the house curry sauce and mixed in veggies, pork and shrimp.

One of the most attractive aspects of Szechuan Omei is the fact that it delivers to both the downtown and university areas with a generous four-mile delivery radius, although there is a $15 minimum for delivery orders. With the small staff the restaurant operates with, you should know that at most times orders will take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half to arrive, so plan ahead.

When delivered, the dishes and soup that I ordered were all lukewarm. However, it is nice to know that if you're feeling a little rough around the edges, Szechuan Omei will be there in an hour or so with $15 worth of tangy, spicy hot and sour soup to help perk you up.

In the end, being the best in town only gets you as far as someone is willing to go to get it and sometimes nothing is better than not having to go anywhere at all.

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