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Friday, May 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Stalking the Szechuan Chef who puts the hot in hot pot

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Szechuan Chef 3 stars

15015 Main St., Suite 107 (Kelsey Creek Center), Bellevue; 425-746-9008

Chinese

$$

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: 11 a.m-10 p.m. daily.

Prices: appetizers/soup $1.50-$10.99, rice/ noodles $6.95-$7.95, meat/poultry/ vegetable/seafood dishes $7.95-$13.95 (seasonal specialties may be higher), family-style hot pot (for two or more) $11.99-$13.99 per person (children 3 and younger free), lunch specials (11 a.m.- 3 p.m. daily) $5.95-$6.95.

Drinks: limited choice of beer and wine.

Parking: acres of free parking in shopping-center lot.

Sound: large parties, squealing kids and hard surfaces make for a noisy dining room.

Who should go: Hot-pot fanciers, Szechuan food neophytes or those to the province born will find something to pique the palate.

Credit cards: MC, V / no obstacles to access.

Nancy Leson on KPLU

Catch Nancy Leson's commentaries on food and restaurants on the third Wednesday of each month on KPLU (88.5 FM) at 6:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m, and again the following Sunday at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. Listen to her latest commentary.

Cheng Biao Yang is a chef with a following. I know, because I've been following him — from one neighborhood to the next — for the past five years.

First I'd drive to his Greenwood cafe, Seven Stars Pepper, for his intensely cumin-scented lamb and searing chong gin hot chicken, each dry-fried with Szechuan peppers and lengths of fresh scallion. When he relocated Seven Stars to a larger locale in Little Saigon in 2003, I followed him there, so as not to miss his flaky "house special pancakes" pulled apart in savory swirls. Or his pickled cabbage soup with pork and slippery noodles. Or his extraordinary Szechuan crab — a whole Dungeness, sold by the pound, whose fragrant spices made my lips hum the happiest of tunes.

Recently, I followed Yang to Bellevue and his latest venture, Szechuan Chef, open since February. (Seven Stars Pepper was sold in August.) Here he's offering the previously mentioned dishes on an expanded menu whose 200-plus items include the house specialty: hot pot. That tabletop extravaganza is a cook-it-yourself feast reminiscent of a feisty fondue party.

Hot pot ($11.99-$13.99 per person) offers platters bearing thin-sliced raw meat (beef, pork, chicken and lamb) and uncooked seafood (shellfish, finfish and fish balls). These arrive alongside platters filled with lacy white beef tripe, cubes of coagulated beef blood, slender bamboo shoots, cellophane noodles and sliced tofu. Each ingredient adds flavor (the blood is livery) and texture (the tripe chewy) to the simmering broth that sits center stage on a portable burner.

I like to order my hot pot "half and half" — which brings a yin-yang vessel, divided, with a mild beef stock on one side, a spicier, oilier, chiles-added version on the other. A vaguely salty peanut sauce, thick and pasty, is offered as condiment, and each diner is given a small bowl. Share the ladle and slotted spoon and get cooking!

As before, Yang's wife, Hoang Ngo, runs the dining room, managing a staff of friendly, efficient servers. This cheerful crew takes a team approach as it tends tables, offering opinions, suggestions and — for those not familiar with the hot-pot cooking process — directions.

Burnt-orange walls, marble-topped tables and faux-bamboo room dividers enhance this deep, high-ceilinged space, whose size may come as a surprise given the narrow strip-mall storefront. Given the length and breadth of the menu, making the best dining decisions here involves time — and multiple visits. There's lots to love, and lots to learn.

At Szechuan Chef, I've learned that bitter melon may be ugly before it's cooked, but it's beautiful when displayed as vibrant green half-moons scattered with garlic. But despite its eye-catching preparation and medicinal qualities (that bitter flavor comes from quinine!), I've yet to acquire a taste for the stuff. Here I learned that "smoked pork with garlic leaf" is smoked pork belly with tender lengths of leek greens. I loved it, though my husband, Jack Sprat, thought the pork was "way too fatty."

Note the abundance of chile-pepper icons that dot the menu. Then ignore those useless heat indicators. I've sampled no-pepper dishes that drove my heat-sensors wild, like the glorious hand-shaven "dan dan noodles" swimming with ground pork in a heat-stoked broth. And three-pepper items that were decidedly mild — including the delicate, pork-filled, dry-style Szechuan wontons, and the whole fish in hot black-bean sauce (a plump tilapia in a rich brown sauce scattered with cilantro and scallions).

Serious heat — holy jalapeños! — packed a wallop as "wild chilies with octopus," also available with prawns or scallops. And the slow glow of ground Szechuan peppercorns lit up crunchy morsels of deep-fried fish served Szechuan-style — inappropriately listed under the header, "Delicate Fish Dishes." That deep-fried sole fillet comes with the unadvertised addition of dry-fried string beans (love those) and rates very high among my recommendations. As does the sweet/hot "eggplant in hot garlic sauce" and the camphor wood and tea-smoked duck — a Western Chinese regional specialty whose moist meat reminded me of prosciutto.

Be sure to try the thin, crisp, green onion pancake appetizer. And consider delving into the "cold appetizer" section for chilled chicken and cucumber with hot sauce. The diced chicken is tossed with thick-sliced cukes, lots of cilantro and plump peanuts, and that "hot sauce" isn't the least bit hot. Skip the cold sliced beef, though. Even the mix of salt and pepper served for dipping couldn't mask its old-roast-beef flavor and overabundance of tendon.

Whether you're a Szechuan food neophyte or to the province born, follow my lead and check out Szechuan Chef. From kung pao chicken to kung pao kidneys, twice-cooked pork to dry-cooked intestines, you'll find something to pique your palate — courtesy of a chef who deserves his fervent following.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Sample menu

House Special Pancake $3.99

Camphor Wood and Tea-Smoked Duck $10.95

Dan Dan Noodles $6.95

Cumin Lamb $9.95

Garlic Bitter Melon $8.25

Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce $8.25

Szechuan Crab $22.90

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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