A cuisine that has recently started appearing on the Vegas food scene is Chinese Szechuan, and one of the first restaurants to start serving it was Yunnan Garden. Szechuan cooking is much spicier than food from other regions of China, yet traditionally, Szechuan cooking was not as pungent or as hot as it is today. The use of chilies has really only become part of the cuisine for the last 200 years when the hot pepper was introduced to China from South America. The Szechuan region is very humid, and since peppers have an internal cooling effect, the new ingredient caught on. Though there is a sweating effect from the food, I don't find Szechuan cuisine I've had to be as hot in the mouth as what I've had at Indian or Thai restaurants, so if you prefer not to feel the burn you don't have to avoid this cuisine that sounds spicier than it is.
Today I dined with Azurde, whose new office is conveniently located in the heart of Chinatown. We bypassed the plethora of really frugal $4.99 and $5.99 lunch specials in favor of Yunnan Garden because I had been there before and knew we'd have a good meal. The first dish that came to us was the least impressive and least expensive, the Dan Dan Noodle ($5.95). It consisted of a sweet and overly salty sauce underneath a mound of noodles sprinkled with peanuts. You mix the noodles and sauce to combine, which you can somewhat do in a way that caters to your own preference for heavy or light dressing. The next dish to arrive was #156, sauteed seasonal vegetables with garlic sauce ($7.85, I'm not an expert on Chinese vegetables, but after looking at some pictures online I think what we had was Choy Sum). Though this generic 'seasonal vegetable' dish appears on most Chinese menus, you aren't quite sure what exactly what you'll be getting, and the degree of expertise used to prepare it can vary dramatically. This version was fantastic, with perfectly cooked vegetables, a light sauce that barely coated them, and excellent flavor. It's hard to tell where the flavor is coming from since there is barely any color, but I'm guessing there might be some MSG in there somewhere, judging by how shiny it was (Anthony Bourdain claims food gets glossier the further West you move due to the use of this magical ingredient. MSG produces a sensation on the tongue which can only be described as umami). Other than the fact that children and pregnant women should stay away from it, I'm not averse to the use of MSG. It's a pretty remarkable ingredient that can really add to a dish, however, it should be consumed in moderation and is usually considered culinary cheating. If the vegetables didn't have MSG, the Fish Fillet in Spicy House Special Sauce ($10.25, #57) that was our entree almost certainly did (see how shiny it is above). I was totally willing to risk consuming the controversial ingredient, however, because the dish was great and a fantastic deal; the plate could easily have served four people with hearty appetites. Though seafood is not an integral part of Szechuan food, freshwater fish is, and there is an abundance of it on Yunnan's menu. This fish was flaky and moist, and the sauce was pungent, spicy, and rich with the color of chilies. I loved the use of crunchy fried soy beans on top and the bed of incredibly fresh soy bean sprouts underneath, but it was a bit oily. Despite the oil, I didn't feel stuffed, and despite the possible health risks, I would order it again.
It's a little difficult to get your bearings when ordering at Yunnan Garden as the choices are numerous and the descriptions vague, but everything coming out of the kitchen looked pretty good. Don't count on much help deciphering from the waitstaff, but if you stick to your personal preferences you should be fine. Just remember, don't bring the kids and leave the pregnant ladies at home. (Note: Many restaurants -not just Chinese- use MSG, and it is also present in a lot of processed snack foods because of its addictive qualities. I'm not trying to single out Yunnan Garden as a culprit.)
Tip: The restaurant is difficult to find. The best way I can direct you is to go to the far back side of the one story strip mall between Valley View and Arville on the south side of Spring Mountain. It's part of that same set of buildings.
Today's Food Ratings:
Dan Dan Noodles: 5
Seasonal Vegetables with garlic sauce: 9
Fish Fillet in Spicy House Special Sauce: 8.25
Restaurant Rating: 6