By Chris Sturgis
Sonya Ma has a loyal Chinese clientele at her restaurant, Szechuan House, but she believes the food of her homeland deserves a wider audience
Ma opened the restaurant about five months ago, spending thousands of dollars to have the streetscape landscaped in an Asian motif and decorate the interior with hand-carved Chinese antiques.
“I want to present this beautiful culture to the American people. I want my customers to know this is a beautiful, caring place,” she said.
She said her chef, Yong Zhao, is excellent, a master at the art of Szechuan cuisine who cooked for governmental officials and foreign dignitaries in China. “He knows how to cook the authentic Chinese food. He didn’t come here to learn to cook,” she said.
Ma is also working on establishing a clientele among government officials here in the United States. She says she served Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini, Jr. West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, who was born in Taiwan, has eaten there so many times she put his picture on the wall.
Her Chinese clientele comes from as far as Pennsylvania and North Jersey. Some of the vegetables in her dishes, such as Chinese water spinach and Chinese squash, have to come from special suppliers in New York and Philadelphia.
“The Chinese are really picky about Chinese food,” she said. Nevertheless, Szechuan House will be named among the best 100 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., as determined by the Chinese Restaurant News. The Nov. 11 awards ceremony will be hosted by well-known chefs Martin Yan and Lee Anne Wong at the All-Asia Food Expo in New York City at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
Ma said she can please any palate with spices ranging from mild to wild.
For example, one trio told her they were worried Szechuan food would be too spicy for them. Ma recommended jumbo shrimp with garlic sauce, crispy whole fish in sweet and sour sauce, beef with asparagus and snow peas.
“They had a wonderful dinner,” she said.
The hot and spicy dinners are marked with a pepper on the menu. Yet, she has many other flavors, as well. She is very proud of her General Tso’s chicken, shrimp with lobster sauce, egg foo yong , boneless spareribs and moo goo gai pan.
Ma received her bachelor’s degree in international business in China and got her masters degree in business administration at the University of Virginia. For a time, she and her husband, Bruce, lived in Connecticut while he studied at Yale University. Now, he’s an investment banker who works on Wall Street.
Some of Ma’s friends don’t understand why she wants to work 12-hour days running a restaurant. “Why put up with the headaches? You could be a housewife,” she remembers them telling her.
For a while, Ma stayed home raising her two children, Jonathan, 13, and Jessica, 8, but she enjoys sharing her culture and being the hostess, she said, as two women got up from their table.
“These are my loyal customers. I’m going to say goodbye to them,” she said, pausing from a late lunch of pork fried rice and jasmine tea topped off with a sesame rice ball for dessert. Szechuan House also serves ice cream.
When she returned to the table, she said she wants her menu to be healthy. “No monosodium glutamate. We don’t use too much oil. We don’t use too much salt,” she said.
On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Chinese families fill up the 180-seat dining room, she said. They bring every family member, ranging from elderly to infant. Customers may have to wait for a table and the atmosphere can be noisy, she said.
“One Sunday, we had seven babies,” she said, smiling at the thought of all those chubby little ones.
For someone desiring a quiet meal, Friday night or Sunday night would be better, she said.
Szechuan House, 2022 Nottingham Way, Route 33 West, Hamilton, is open seven days a week for dining, take-out orders and catering. To order, call (609) 890-7600 or (609) 890-7758. The hours are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. On the Web: top100.c-r-n.com.