Back to basics


Ask almost anyone, "What's your favorite restaurant?" and the answer will change regularly. Ask, however, "What's your favorite kind of food?" and the response is likely to be quick and consistent.

Upbringing and environment usually set our preferences early in life. And, as a transplanted New Yorker, I have long placed Chinese food high on my list. So I'm happy to report that Empire Szechuan's menu, which advertises "authentic New York-style Chinese Cuisine," isn't hype.

While it's a storefront-with- tables-and-take-out kind of place, Empire began its history in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where fabulous food often comes from humble surroundings (sounds like a proverb).

At the risk of alienating the heartiest eaters among you, I'll say that Empire Szechuan could make its portions much smaller and still overwhelm most of us with food. When you dine at the restaurant, items are served in take-out containers, and that's good because you'll need them – you will want to take home what you can't finish.

Spicy Szechuan entrees like Kung Po ($8.75 to $9.75) – beef, chicken, shrimp or scallops with peanuts – and the infamously hot General Tso's chicken ($8.75) share the menu with more familiar Cantonese fare. But even such dishes as lo mein or egg foo young are treated as culinary treats here, because the people in the kitchen understand the basics of Chinese cuisine: Cook fresh food fast, and let the ingredients shine. Each shrimp in the shrimp in garlic sauce ($9.75) seems to be cooked individually to a perfect, slightly resistant tenderness. Pork, shrimp, scallop and beef make up the "Happy Family," but there's no confusing each flavor ($10.75). And the chef avoids the usually over-salty taste of moo shu chicken ($7.25) by letting the flavors of the vegetables carry the meal.

In addition to the classics, there are more inventive items on the menu. I haven't seen curry shrimp with onions in any other restaurant recently, and the pan-fried dumplings in garlic sauce ($3.95) were as huge and irresistible as they are original. "Chow mei fun" ($6.25), which is cooked in the Singapore style, paired sautéed vermicelli noodles with an ample assortment of seafood (ask them to leave the "crab" out; it's that fake stuff) and a lovely light sauce.

A Chinese proverb says, "Food is medicine." Whatever is ailing you, Empire just might have the cure.


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