IN THE KITCHEN Rong Meng was looking for a way to pay for college for her three daughters when a friend recommended she start a small business. “I thought, I can cook,’’ she said.
So the enterprising Weston stay-at-home mom looked for locations and landed in Newton, where she opened Sichuan Gourmet House three years ago on Beacon Street in the Four Corners neighborhood. About six months ago, she and her husband, Ming Zhao, moved the business into its new location in Newton Highlands, with more space and a full liquor license.
Meng — who with Zhao moved to the Boston area 26 years ago from their native Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province — is still serving the traditionally spicy, complex dishes of their hometown. Chef Yu He comes from Beijing, but his specialty is the distinctive cooking from Sichuan.
THE LOCALE Sichuan Gourmet House is a bit hard to find, located in a parking lot behind O’Hara’s Foods and Spirits on Walnut Street, but the new space is four times larger than the original, Meng said.
When you walk in the door, for a split second you might think you’re actually in China. The decor is dark wood and red, there are lanterns, tables of assorted sizes, a tank from which fish for some of the specials are pulled on order, and employees sitting in the corner pulling stems off a huge pile of fresh green beans that takes up the whole table.
In the foyer there’s a gorgeous kumquat tree with small orange fruit dotting the branches. Glance down, and on the pot there’s a handwritten sign in Mandarin and English warning customers not to pick the fruit.
It brings a chuckle to our faces, and Meng has a good-natured response.
“Too many people were stealing my fruit; I had to do something,’’ she said with a laugh.
ON THE MENU Many of the dishes also brought back the distinct flavors reminiscent of things tried at small restaurants in Chengdu, especially the ma po tofu ($8.50 at lunch), which the menu describes as mild, but we ordered Chengdu-style, and “hot, like in China.’’
The vegetarian dish came spicy as ordered, with the requisite Sichuan pink peppercorns providing the distinct numbing hotness and flavor that the traditionally prepared recipe is known for.
A friend who recently moved back to the states after spending five years in China took her first bite of the silky tofu, and proclaimed that she had finally found the taste she has been missing since leaving Asia.
The cucumber garlic salad ($7) was also exactly as remembered from Shanghai — fresh, cool, with lots of garlic — as was the yu shiang eggplant ($7.50 at lunch), which had just the right amount of oil and heat.
Orders of sauteed green beans ($11) and shredded pork with sauteed green beans ($8.50 at lunch), were also authentically prepared and delicious, with the beans cooked through with a garlicy complex flavor while retaining their color and some crunch, unlike the bland, wilted, over-cooked versions that too often appear at other places.
Beef with scallions ($8.50 at lunch), which none at our table had ever tried, was an unexpected and wonderful new find. The sliced beef is tender and lean, with lots of bright green sliced scallions in a mild brown sauce that complements but doesn’t overpower the main ingredients.
There are plenty of superb Sichuan specialties here, some more familiar than others, to bring us back.
Sichuan Gourmet House is at 1203R Walnut St. in Newton Highlands. It can be reached by phone at 617-964-3500, 617-964-3502, or 617-964-3503, or online at www.sichuangourmethouse.com.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at email@example.com.