Szechuan East: My Dining Room
I lived in New York City for the better part of fifty years. On the Upper East Side, between 80th and 81st Street on Second Avenue, there was a Chinese restaurant called Szechuan East. My mother was the first one to take me there, with her friends Egmont and Margaret, and it was a place that was the wallpaper of my family gatherings. Over the years, as I introduced my two husbands and numerous friends, it became our local haunt. Sometimes we ordered in, but mostly we all met there. Louis, a partial owner who was always there to greet everyone who came through his doors, gave us the back table in the small dining room, which was usually full but that table was always waiting for us, whether or not we let him know we were coming.
Louis, who was from China and had been on the Olympic basketball team, always made us smile. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t six feet tall with shoes on, but he was kind and happy to see us, and knew to bring us the Szechuan dumplings before anyone moved on to the shrimp toast and orange beef. I’ve ordered orange beef at every good restaurant I’ve been to, but I have never found one that comes anywhere close. Not too hot, not too sweet, perfectly cooked beef, clearly a quality cut, and more. The string beans were also a staple at every meal, along with a few other dishes depending on the number of us gathering. But these menu items were always part of our meal.
Egmont was a terrific chef. He spent hours making mouth watering food at his farm in Hudson Valley, or his resort near Lake George, but he and Margaret, who was a booking agent for Wilhelmina Modeling (or was it Elite?), had a studio in New York, so this was where he dined. Over the years, Louis finally allowed him to go into the kitchen, ostensibly to learn the craft, but I’m pretty sure his motive was to steal the recipe for Szechuan dumplings.
For weeks he toiled in the kitchen, washing dishes and preparing vegetables, and while the chef did let him observe the actual cooking, just when it was about time to serve, he would turn his back on Egmont and not allow him to see one or more ingredients. It drove Egmont nuts, and I, for one, loved it.
All those years, Louis rarely sat with us, nor, to the best of my knowledge, did he visit Egmont and Margaret in any of their homes, but he became part of our family. He saw us celebrate, he saw us huddle in smaller groups, sometimes just two of us, where one of us would cry because of some painful break-up, or promotion missed, or just a bad, bad day. We knew when the restaurant was struggling, and we would come even more often. Over the years we learned about his family, and he overheard all about ours. I can still picture his face lighting up whenever I arrived.
Takeout was tricky. The string beans would continue to cook in the container and sometimes arrived soggy, rather than steaming crisp, but the Szechuan dumplings never, ever arrived as anything other than perfect. The orange beef sometimes was a little overdone as well, but if you ordered chicken and cashews, you couldn’t go wrong.
So, it’s been twenty years since it closed. They moved to New Jersey, but I never went there.
My sister and I have been extolling the virtues of a noodle company that sends you a bag of noodles with heat, or the ones I like are with scallions. She is much more adventurous than I am when cooking, and she texted me that she had recreated Szechuan dumplings, not with dumplings, but with noodles. I was dubious. Without the pork dumpling, how could it compare?
I made them last night. From the moment I put it in my mouth, I was struck by the fact that it was right on the mark. And, when I shut my eyes, so many fabulous memories came back. So many.
I will share one that over the years has become funny. I had a boyfriend in the seventies who wasn’t treating me well, and I was pretty much done with him. He had two kids whom I loved, maybe more than him. Anyway, he had gotten them a dog, Blackie (yes, you could never name a dog that now, but this was the seventies), who was a terror, and I’d watched the dog for a weekend. When he came to pick it up, my sister, Leslie, who was living with me at my apartment on 80th and First Avenue, was supposed to answer the door and tell him I was out. She was supposed to hand over the dog, and "Mission Chris Is Out" would be over. I’m not sure why I didn’t go back to my room to disappear, but I think we were watching something on TV, and so I just stepped into the closet in the living dining room for the few seconds it would take to give him the dog.
“Hey Leslie, how are you? Is Chris here?”
“I’m good. No, she’s out.”
“I was going to see if she wanted to play some backgammon and order in from Szechuan East.”
“She is out for the night.”
“Do you want to play?”
She didn’t even hesitate.
“Sure, come on in.”
Yep, for the next two hours, I was stuck in the closet, with Blackie coming by every fifteen minutes to sniff at the door, and I could smell the food in the closet, especially the peanut sauce from the dumplings, and I was starving and I might have even shed a tear. Even I, with hindsight, can laugh at the optics.
Mostly, every single wonderful memory I have from Szechuan East is filled with joy, warmth, great food, and fabulous family and company. Others probably have a dining room that brings back the same memories, but for me, it’s a little hole in the wall Chinese restaurant that was home.
Here is the recipe, but I didn’t use the brands she mentions; I just used regular honey and peanut butter, and it was great. I sautéed chicken and put it over the noodles, and it was amazing.
Leslie’s Version of Szechuan East Dumplings Without Dumplings
Chris, this recipe is just like Szechuan East dumpling recipes, but not with the dumplings; just using the noodles - tastes the exact same!!
- 1 pack Momofuku Soy & Scallion Noodles (or other Momofuku Noodles of your choice)
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter
- 1 tablespoon Momofuku Hot Honey
- 1 teaspoon Momofuku Rice Vinegar
- Toasted peanuts, crushed (optional)
- Sliced scallions (optional)
Cook noodles for 3 minutes, then drain and shake dry.
While the noodles are cooking, combine 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, 1 tablespoon of Momofuku Hot Honey, 1 teaspoon of Momofuku Rice Vinegar, the noodle sauce packet, and the noodle dried scallion packet.
Toss the cooked noodles with the prepared sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning with Momofuku Soy Sauce, as desired. Top with toasted peanuts and sliced scallions.