The menu at Chin's Szechwan Chinese Restaurant in Encinitas bears the promise that "You will find our daily special unusual, delightful and reasonable."
The slogan applies quite well to the majority of dishes sampled, but on neither of two recent visits did the restaurant offer a daily special.
The broad menu offers a number of choices that are hard to find in these parts. The cuisine certainly is more daring than the decor, which follows very much in the paper lantern and Moon Gate motif.
One meal started on a disconcerting note when an order of potstickers (the delightful fried dumplings that, locally unknown a decade ago, have become ubiquitous since) arrived in the length of time it took the waiter to make a round-trip to the kitchen. They unquestionably had been prepared in advance, and had a cool temperature to prove it.
This single lapse proved an exception to a general rule of competent, thoughtful cooking. The "house specialties" page of the menu is the best place to shop for hard-to-find dishes, especially the pao hu , or "hot burned pork," a savory mix of sliced meat and crushed peanuts braised in a moderately spicy sauce.
As would be expected in a Szechuan establishment, quite a number of listings are marked with an asterisk that denotes a spicy-hot finish. But, as is increasingly true these days, the food is usually mild unless a special request is made.
Other choices from the specialties list include a very tender Hunan beef coated with a thick sauce that combines a definite sweetness with a little heat; the hon hon shrimp, or deep fried critters in a "sweet-and-pungent" sauce, attempts the same effect with less success. The lamb Hunan-style takes a different tack by adding spicy black bean sauce to the wok. A dish described as "surprise lettuce delight" is recognizable as the usual minced chicken wrapped in lettuce leaves, with the pleasant difference that chopped shrimp are added to the mix.
A second page marked "traditional favorites" offers an unusually silly-sounding dish named "nude party" that is served, no less, in something called a lover's nest. This actually consists of shelled, lightly sauced shrimp piled in an edible basket, which may make it something of an amusement for the younger set.
A far better selection from this page is the Szechuan garlic eggplant, a succulent stew of eggplant and minced pork in a heady garlic sauce. This is one of those dishes that melts on the tongue, but be aware that a little goes a long way, and ordering this for just a party of two might be stretching the point.
A fair number of dishes, no matter how the menu describes them, are of the batter-fried, lightly-sauced school, and can be dull. A case in point would be the spicy honey shrimp, which was merely sticky. The sesame beef, if somewhat better flavored in general, was disappointingly light on the sesame. Many treatments extend to several departments of the menu, so that there are lobster, shrimp, scallops, pork, beef, chicken and lamb Szechuan; most of these are also available in the tasty garlic sauce.
The restaurant also offers a Mongolian barbecue at which guest-arranged plates of meats, vegetables and numerous flavored oils and waters are cooked to order on a sheet-metal grill. This style of eating can be most satisfactory if the chef's advice on seasoning is requested in advance. A suggestion would be that, unless you really are timid in your tastes, don't be shy.
The appetizer list shows the least imagination, but the cold noodles in spicy sauce--actually a mild dilution of peanut butter--are both flavorful and fun to eat with chopsticks. The fat, spaghetti-like strands slither between the sticks like wriggling baby eels, and if you choose this method of eating, by all means tuck your napkin under your chin before digging in.
Chin's Szechwan Chinese Restaurant
1506 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees from $4.95 to $15.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $40