Enchanted Szechuan lives up to its name on Norwalk's restaurant row

Photo of Jane Stern

Once, decades back, if you lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan you were caught in the Szechuan revolution. Few people had heard of this cuisine, but it caught on with the ferocity of the hot peppers that were in every dish. There were probably 10 legendary Szechuan restaurants between West 79th and West 86th Street. Everybody had their favorite, and their favorite dishes.

These foods were nothing like the Cantonese cuisine that was back then the only Chinese foods familiar to Americans. Not only was this new stuff blazingly hot: spangled with bird’s eye chili pods and peanutsm but it was cooked in an almost dry wok. To this day, I can’t think of any food I liked as much, even if I spent that decade doubled over with IBS.

Like anyone searching for their lost love, I have spend much time trying out Szechuan restaurants and always leaving disappointed. The menu titles of the meals were correct but the food was blah, hot but not savory. Little did not expect to find a contender in South Norwalk.

The name of the place I found is Enchanted Szechuan and it is on busy Washington Street which many think of as Norwalk’s “restaurant row.” I have eaten at steakhouses on this street, at Italian bistros and at Seafood emporiums, but only this week did I try Enchanted Szechuan, and I am so glad I did.

Inside is a simple dining room and bar, both clean and appetizing. The servers are polite and capable, but the big attraction was the menu. As many times as I have eaten Szechuan food before, I have not seen many of these dishes. I love discovering new delights.

I had not run into a restaurant that served Sour Cabbage Flounder Soup, Beef and Tripe in Chili Oil, Shredded Pork Pickles Soup, Spicy Sour Bean Jelly and Tofu Pudding Pot. At Enchanted Szechuan these unique dishes are scattered throughout the menu along with ubiquitous favorites like General Tso’s Chicken and Kung Pao. The point is that this little restaurant is not aimed at gourmets who want odd new foods, but instead is a place where there is something for everyone.

In addition to the unique dishes there were whole styles of cooking that were new to me.

I ordered five dishes and was delighted with every one. No, they were not the equals to the mythical Upper West Side places of my memory, but they were as good or better then any Szechuan I have been served in years.

The entrees on the menu contain all the proteins most of use ask for. Chicken, tofu, beef, lamb, shrimp, ribs, pork and fish. Where it gets interesting is that once you have selected your protein you are given a choice of lesser-known ways to cook it. Many were a revelation to me.

The first unique cooking style I tried was listed as “Rice Crust Style Chicken.” The poultry was cooked quickly in a robust sweet and sour sauce. To this are added bamboo shoots, tomatoes (new to me in Szechuan cooking), black mushrooms and pea leaves. The fun starts when the dish is served. You hear the sizzling rice on the platter before you see it or taste it.

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Enchanted Szechuan

120 Washington St, Norwalk


I was also unfamiliar with “Dry Pot Style” food. As a freelance food detective, I had correctly guessed that Szechuan food was prepared in a very hot dry wok with hardly any oil. The Beef Dry Pot Style that I ordered came in a sizzling mini wok, again a great auditory dish. The beef was laced with blistering black Szechuan peppercorns, black mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Because of the heat of the mini wok the dish melds all the ingredients together and makes its own “hot pot” sauce, boldly flavored and not in the least greasy.

A few degrees away from “Dry Pot Style” is “Dry Pepper Style.” Your choice of meat is triple flash fried with hot, long red peppers and tiny dried peppers as well. I ordered the ribs cooked this way, and because of the high heat and triple flash flying the dish was tender yet greaseless.

Then “Spicy Boiled Style” caught my eye. I was not as crazy for this rather soupy preparation as the others. The leeks and celery all seemed to meld together and the flavors were not as bright. More interesting and unusual was “Cumin Style,” here the meat of choice is liberally dusted with cumin and then quickly stir fried with bell peppers, long hot peppers and onions. The taste of cumin always reminds me of Southwestern Chile and with this in mind I ordered the dish with beef. I don’t think you could fool any Texan into thinking it was traditional but it is an interesting twist on broadening what we think of as classically Chinese. Cumin is such a forceful spice that it somewhat obliterated the peppers and onions.

“Garlic Sauce Style” is a surefire favorite, as is the more well known spicy “Kung Pao Style,” but if you want a dish that is lighter and less common then the other styles, I recommend the “Salt and Pepper Style” shrimp. Big, fresh shrimp is delicately battered and served on a bed of minced pepper and onion. It may be the least hot of all the styles but in its own minimalistic way it outshines some of the more fiery ones.

If you are not feeling adventurous, good old standbys like Orange Beef and General Tso’s Chicken are on the menu, as is my favorite thing of all: the Szechuan String beans. Please understand I spent my entire childhood loathing string beans. I think they were canned, bloated sodden things that I snuck to my dog under the table. Szechuan String Beans were and still are minor miracles. Bright green and quickly dry fried and they are alive with spices and addictive. It is the best possible thing to do to this vegetable, and I would not share a single one with my dog.

Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series.