Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Editor’s note: Even the most devoted Thanksgiving turkey enthusiast eventually needs a change of protein. To that end, Rivard Report staff roamed the city to find hidden gems, longtime local favorites, and other independent eateries that serve slices of San Antonio’s manifold cultures. For more stories in our Escape the Turkey series, click here.
The first page of the Sichuan House menu offers a hint of the richness and complexity of one of China’s most prized cuisines. Twenty-three flavor profiles are listed, from the straightforward “Homestyle Flavor,” described as “savory, mildly spicy, mildly sweet,” to the “salty, sweet, numbing, spicy, tangy fragrant” profile named “Strange Flavor.”
Though generally thought of as the spicy variety of Chinese restaurant food, Sichuan cuisine touches on many flavors. Dishes might include toasted chili peppers, peppercorns, garlic and ginger, fermented rice, fruits, and even cassia bark and pine needles, to “achieve a harmonious symphony of complex flavors within each dish,” the restaurant’s Facebook page reads.
“You can probably find multiple flavor profiles present in any given dish,” said owner Kristina Zhao, who opened the restaurant with her father in 2015.
One quality of Sichuan cooking is that multiple flavors present in each dish do not overpower each other, but instead work together.
“Another defining element of Sichuan cuisine is it’s so versatile,” Zhao said. “You can take the same ingredients and make many dishes with them,” which results in an extensive menu.
The menu features many classic Sichuan dishes, she said, with a small section of Americanized Chinese classics like salt and pepper shrimp or calamari, or beef with scallions. Even those receive a Sichuan twist, however, with “different aromatics and different dimension of flavor,” she said.
A list of chef’s specialties on the menu, like whole fish dishes, Lover’s Bridge baby back ribs, or Hong Kong-style roasted duck, require 24 to 48 hours advance notice, due in part to the small size of the kitchen. “We want to always maintain the freshness and quality of all the ingredients,” Zhao said.
But the restaurant is also known for its hospitality. Self-described foodie Justin Vogt works down the street, and at first thought of the small Sichuan House as a hole-in-the-wall place he could probably skip. But once he finally visited, he was hooked by the food and “the first-class service,” he said.
“It’s all about personalizing your experience,” Vogt said, with servers willing to explain dishes in-depth. “The menu isn’t like anything you see out there,” he added, and servers are good at making recommendations.
“We just try to take care of people, put our best foot forward,” Zhao said, “and we’re very grateful that we’ve been well-received by the community.”
Now, Vogt said, “I need to have this in my life at least once a week.” He recommended the wontons, and the Kung Pao chicken if you’re in a hurry
Another San Antonian in the restaurant business appreciates the Kung Pao chicken, particularly for its authenticity.
Restaurateur Jenn Dobbs of Tenko Ramen said, “It’s a dish on every Chinese restaurant menu, but they’re the only ones that do the authentic version” as a basic dish with “traditionally just chicken, a lot of chili peppers,” and peanuts, of course.
Dobbs runs the Pearl Food Hall’s ramen stand with Quealy Watson, both formerly of Hot Joy, and plans to open a Chinese pop-up called Quality Daughter for Chinese New Year in early February.
That widely celebrated holiday is probably the closest Chinese equivalent to American Thanksgiving, Dobbs said. “The country basically shuts down,” she said. “Everyone goes home to spend time with family, and there’s an overabundance of food.”
In fact, Dobbs will spend this Thanksgiving in Hong Kong, researching for the new restaurant. Meanwhile, she recommends trying another Sichuan House specialty, beef tendon with peanuts.
One of her all-time favorite dishes, it requires an intensive cooking process to be done right, she said. She judges Sichuan House’s version as spot-on, with “lot of textures involved, and it’s flavorful.”
Dobbs recommends Sichuan House for Thanksgiving in part “because it’s family style,” with dishes ordered and shared among the whole table. “It’s all about sharing and spending time with family and your loved ones. That’s super central in Chinese culture,” she said.
“That’s how everyone eats in Asia. It’s always family style, so it’s always Thanksgiving.”
The restaurant seats 70, Zhao said, but she recommends larger parties call in advance to help the staff plan ahead. “We try to encourage people to work with us in coordinating the menu, to help the flow of things,” she said.
Sichuan House will be open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Bonnie Arbittier contributed to this report.