Szechuan Gourmet: Day 1 as a NYT 2 Starred Restaurant

After Frank Bruni awarded Szechuan Gourmet 2 stars in yesterday’s New York Times, I panicked. Of course I was excited for the place, but a lot of that excitement merely served to hide an underlying fear. I will never be able to eat lunch in Szechuan Gourmet again. And even if I could get in, would it still be the same? Doesn’t Wu Liang Ye (on 48th btw. 5+6th) and all the rest of the Midtown Chinese dinosaurs have New York Times articles in their windows? And look at them now. Not terrible, but shells of their former selves. Granted, those articles were from 1984, but who’s counting.

With all this in mind we rushed over to Grand Szechuan for lunch yesterday, mere hours from the time that Bruni’s accolades were made public, super curious over what we would find. Pandemonium? Sub par food from a cocky overwhelmed kitchen? Mass hysteria? As I walked up 39th St. I noticed a few people with dejected looks on their faces carrying take out menus back to their office. Not a good sign.


At 12:30 the wait for a table was 30 minutes, and the scene was pretty hectic (although not much different from a normal day around 1pm.) Tons of take out orders were being picked up, and I heard it mentioned that the phones had been ringing off the hook all morning. Oh right… take out orders. You don’t have to wait for a table, you can just call ahead and pick up your lunch. Maybe things are going to be ok.

But on this day, we decided to wait- and for that patience we were rewarded with a meal that confirms Szechuan Gourmet as hands down the best Chinese restaurant in Midtown. Bruni or no Bruni. From 11:30 to 3:30pm SG offers a lunch menu where everything is $6.95 to $9.95, but I would recommend going to withas many people as possible, and mixing up some lunch specials with some of the Szechuan delicacies and appetizers (most of which are well below $10.) This way you can sample a ton of stuff, but still keep the tab under $10 per person.


The lunch special comes with your choice of soup, and to answer the commenter from yesterday- the wontonsoup is excellent. Seriously. While most places give you dish water, you can tell that this soup (actually, bothsoups for that matter) was made with some serious time and care. The broth is outstanding, and has a barely noticeable kick- getting you ready for the pain to come.

In addition to the two lunch specials we ordered two appetizers off the Szechuan Delicacies menu:


The Chef’s Sichuan Pickle ($3.95 $4.50**) was amazing. Very lightly pickled and super spicy, I could tell this would be a nice complement to some of the more greasy dishes we would be getting later. For $4.50, how can you not?


Thin sliced beef tendon w/ roasted chili vinaigrette ($7.95 $8.95**). I remember the first time I heard about Szechuan Gourmet. It was from a co-worker named John who told me about this amazingly authentic Chinese food restaurant witha special “hidden” Sichuan menu where you could find all the good stuff. Duck tongue, jelly fish, thousand year old eggs, and most importantly beef tendon. Seeing as how much I love the sauteed beef tendon at Sake Bar Hagi (48th btw. 6+7th), I knew that this would be my favorite dish at SG. Sort of like a slightly rubbery proscuitto, the beef tendon is cut paper thin and served cold, covered in an oily hot dressing. If you are even mildly adventurous, I would definitely recommend this dish.

On to the two lunch specials…


Braised Ma “Paul” Tofu with Chili Minced Pork ($6.95 $7.40**) or as I like to call it- lake of fire. Don’t let the funny typo fool you, the guy who invented this dish was certainly not named Paul. This thing tasted exactly the way it looked. So spicy, but so freaking good. I usually prefer my tofu to be fried, but the ground pork made up for it- that and the fact that I could only eat a few spoonfulls before my face burned off. (Note: My face didn’t actually burn off, and in retrospect people who love super super spicy foods may not find this as hot as I did. I’m just a wuss. A very-sweaty-at-the-end-of-the-meal wuss.)


Double cooked Sliced Pork Belly w/ Chili Leeks ($6.95 $7.40**). Also know as “the star of the show”. I’m guessing that this is the most ordered lunch special on the Szechuan Gourmet menu (and I’m not just saying that because it’s listed first.) Is there anything better than good pork belly? Half meat, half fat- and the SG version is cooked so perfectly. Not too crispy but not too mushy. The perfect middle ground, and if you like leeks (giant green onions) than you’re really in for a special treat. I could eat this every single day for lunch.

A good amount of food for four people, the bill with tip came out to $42 (50 cents apiece over the Midtown Lunch price limit, and worth every single penny), but you can definitely order differently and come out with more food for the same price. Either way, there is no question the more, the merrier.

By 1:30pm there were open tables, and no wait, so clearly I probably overreacted. And if you don’t want to wait to have a later lunch, there is always the take out option. It looks like we’re going to be alright… until they raise their prices.

Today’s +/- is pretty easy… keep in mind, these aren’t the goods and bads. It’s more like a how to determine whether or not you’re going to like this place…

The + (What somebody who likes this place would say)

  • “I love spicy authentic Szechuan cuisine, and want to eat the best version Midtown has to offer”

The – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)

  • “Do they have beef with broccoli?”
  • We will also accept “I don’t really like spicy food” a correct answer.
  • And… “What’s pork belly? That doesn’t sound good to me.”
  • Oooh, there’s also… “I ordered the sweet and sour chicken, and don’t see what the big deal is.”
  • (This really could go on forever and ever…)

Szechuan Gourmet, 21 W. 39th St. (btw. 5+6th), 212-921-0233

** I double checked my receipt and realized that the prices on the dine in menu (which I paid) are more expensive than the prices listed on the take out menu. Sorry for the confusion.


  • You’re an arrogant bastard Zach…but I suppose it comes with the food blogging territory. I’m content with my ignorance and will enjoy my sesame chicken, thank you very much. No need to kick us around for it though.

  • I went there today. PRetty crowded but not crazy at 12:30. Got L27, as always. Kitchen disorganized, food took forever, out of brown rice, white rice came out 12 min after food plates. Portion seemed smaller than before but maybe my imagination. Guy I was w/ got sesame chk and definitely had the I don’t understand what the big deal look on his face.

    Bottom line I think they’ll survive. Front of house guy handling the pressure well. I will be back at next opportunity. Tempted by pork belly (which I’ve had) and cumin-lamb (which I haven’t, and which is $16.95) but will most likely again order L27.

  • The wonder that is Belly Pork is gods way of winding the jews and the muslims up.

  • I also was there today and waited about 15 min to be seated, not bad.

    Jack Barber, maybe you can confirm, didn’t they raise the lunch special prices to start at $7.40? Our total (including tax+tip) for the baby eggplant dish, the double cooked pork belly, and the tendon appetizer was $30. Tendon price was the same, I think it’s just the lunch specials that were raised.

  • @ Ignorant but Happy – Haha- dude… I love sesame chicken just as much as the next guy. And my love of General Tso’s is well documented…

    All I was trying to point out is that if you go to Szechuan Gourmet expecting the greatest Americanized chinese food you’ve ever had, you’re going to be very disappointed. It got great reviews for its Szechuan specialties, not its beef with broccoli.

  • Zach is a humble fat man in search of the best in midtown, what’s arrogant about that?

    That pork belly looks amazing, is it garlicy? I love all things garlic.

  • does the Tofu with Chili Minced Pork come with something other than tofu? I mean, I’m not a tofu fan but I love chiles and pork… hot spicy pork..mum…. damn I’m hungry!

  • I understand my man…just trying to make sure you never forget your roots! :)

  • Wow Zach, that sort of makes me want to eat beef tendon something i never sort of thought I’d want to eat before. You are a magician.

  • I was with Zach. He does not lie. It was delicious. He did not mention that the sauce on the tendons and the pickles was heavy with szechuan peppercorn, which after a while always reminds me of being on LSD.

  • mouthwatering pictures… oh man!

  • Ma Po tofu is one of the best, if not the best, szechuan foods. None of this “I don’t like tofu crap”. It wouldn’t be half as good if they cut out those soft, moist cubes of heaven.

  • @ Tom: Right on about Ma Po tofu. I defy anyone who doesn’t like tofu but loves spicy stuff to try it. It’s the ultimate torturous comfort food, if that makes any sense.
    That Szechuan Gourmet…*sigh*…they break my heart. I used to go there at least once a week for the pork belly & leek. But the chaos there is tough to handle, and they served us tepid food one too many times. I finally decided to complain. Quietly but firmly. The head waiter dude picked up one of our plates of food and tossed it into the food bus bin with a dramatic clack! I sh*t you not! My dining companion and I were stunned and sad. We left. I haven’t been back.

  • The ma po tofu is indeed grand. They’re also very generous with their beef tendon. How much tendon can you scrape off a cow? And their spicy beef noodle soup will burn your face off.

  • You had me at Ma Po tofu. Seriously, I love the stuff. Mmm and the Pork Belly and Leek sounds fabulous, too. I’m going to have to give them a try perhaps in a couple weeks when the initial insanity dies down.

    @justnancy: that’s insane! did they bring you new food? did they charge you?

  • I agree Ma po Tofu is indeed delicious, my mouth waters from the mention of it. I also love pork bellies, beef tendons, intestines. It has a squishy, yet firm texture, it dosn’t need alot of seasoning, but benefits greatly from a good chili sauce. (In general, not specifically to the items mentioned in this post)

  • I’ve been hearing raves about Szechuan Gourmet for some time, but haven’t made it there, mainly because I live so close to many great Sichuan spots in Queens.

    Kudos to you Zach for going on the very same day the Times review came out. Glad to hear that SG still turned out good chow despite the crowds. That said, I humbly admit that I’ve never had mapo doufu.

  • There used to be a really good Chinese Rest. called Wong Kee at 113 Mott Street, but it’s no longer there. Does anyone know if they moved or just went out of business? Thanks.

  • Just went here for lunch for the first time. This place is golden.
    If you can beat the lunch rush @ 12 then you might be able to get a table without a wait. I was seated right away at 11:40.
    Soup was great, both the hot and sour and the wonton. They bring this out right after ordering. You also get some nice tea, which is great during this never ending winter. Our lunch specials came out within 2 minutes of our soup.

    If you like spicy then this is the place for you. Super fresh and with great veggies. I did not come into contact with any carrots, which is my tell tale for a cheap chinese place. Lunch came out to $10 a person and we were all stuffed. Lunch plates are big enough that everyone can share. Brown rice was cooked nicely and waiters are always refilling your water glasses, which you will need.

    The spice was not like that of say a hot wing, it was more of a flavor spice. Not really tongue burning, but more of a rush of spices. Be sure to say NOT SPICY if you can’t handle it.

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    Friend and I went to Szechuan Gourmet and timed how long it takes them to prepare a table for the following customers. We were already suspicious when our seats were still rather warm. Average somewhere between 13-15 seconds. Stunning to watch, really.

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