If you ask for the ‘Secret Menu,’ your table could look like this too.

Szechuan Garden (752 18th St., Arcata) has been a Chinese restaurant — often under other names — for my entire life. I used to love going there not so much for the tired lo mein as for the amazing dingy fish tanks that made the whole place feel like some dank underwater cave, and the maybe-not-racist-but-definitely-in-questionable-taste murals of presumably ancient Chinese life, in thick dark eggplant-colored paint.

Then I moved to New York where I got all fancified, and my standards for Chinese food got annoyingly high. When I moved back here, I skipped Chinese altogether because General Tsao just wouldn’t cut it any more. I won’t say it drove to me to suicide, but it did leave a hole in my life — when Christmas rolled around, what’s a Jewish girl supposed to do without Chinese?

I started hearing whispers this year about new developments up at the Garden. Things like “The food is super awesome” and “You should go eat the food.” It turns out the old owners, who had had it for a long time, had some personal troubles and eventually sold it to some younger Chinese people who apparently want to make a real go of it.

They’ve made a good start with the paint job. Dank and purple no longer, the interior of Szechuan Garden has been considerably lightened by a nice coat of fresh peach paint and there is no sign of the murals, which I kind of miss. The place is clean and well-lit and the walled-in booths provide a welcome degree of separation between you and the other, possibly annoying diners.

Our water-getter was a nice young woman who didn’t know much about the menu, but was affable and prompt. Our waiter knew more. We asked diffidently about the “secret menu”, and imagine our surprise when the waiter grinned and said, “Oh, you want the secret menu? Okay!” Who actually has a secret menu? Titled “Secret Menu,” no less? I have asked that a million times (I always do, because who knows) and that’s the first time anyone has said yes! You could have knocked me over with a teacup.

Shoving aside the stupid Regular Menu, (which, for the record is not stupid at all and is very long, with lots of seafood specialties I can’t wait to try, but c’mon, SECRET MENU!) we ordered an unnecessary amount of food.

There are a lot of dishes on the Secret Menu you just KNOW are more interesting than the name — like #8 “Egg with Leek,” which is followed by like eight Chinese characters that probably say “Lots of Amazing Chinese Things With Egg and Leek.” I will have to go back for that, and lots of other items. With heroic self-restraint, the two of us ordered Hot Pot Braised Spicy Pig Intestines (!!!!), Pork Leek Dumplings (house-made), Spicy Sauteed Lotus Root, Cold Beef Salad, Pan Fried Trumpet Mushrooms (on the regular menu) and Pan Fried Leek Turnover. What a feast, huh?

Leek and pork dumplings.

We started off with the Pork Leek Dumplings, which were exciting to discover because we had just been lamenting the lack of housemade dumplings in Humboldt. Served steamed with Chinese black vinegar, they were predictably scrumptious, stuffed with predominantly leek with a little pork for flavor and what appeared to be glass noodles. I can’t wait to go back on a cold winter day and sit a booth and sip tea and eat hot dumplings (apparently they used to have Dim Sum, with lots of kinds of buns and dumplings, but it was too much work. So everyone who goes, let’s all ask for Dim Sum, and maybe they will bring it back! PORK BUNS, people!).

Cold beef salad.

Moving on, the Cold Beef Salad was more room temperature, with bell peppers, cucumber, roughly chopped garlic, cilantro and lots of shiny red hot peppers I pushed aside, in a chile oil that made beautiful orange pools on the side of the plate. It wasn’t too hot without the red peppers, and the flavors were warm and rich and crisp and refreshing all at the same time. That on its own with rice would make a great lunch.

Pan-fried lotus root.

The Lotus Root came — a fantastic water-chestnut texture and an extraordinary shape. Imagine if a long white radish had a lot of curious holes and chambers inside. Imagine it cut into half-inch discs. Now imagine those in a scallion-heavy garlic and chile sauce, with a few green and red peppers floating around for added color and heat. The lotus was crisp and refreshing, with a flavor akin to radishes but less spicy and more redolent of the woods. It was nice and easy to eat, which I appreciated as the Hot Pot Braised Spicy Pig Intestines arrived.

Braised spicy pig intestines.

I should say, much as I am a fan of the the whole snout-to-tail ethos, I have a hard time eating offal. It’s just so awful, haha. I like liver, but beyond that is a little much. The Secret Menu features intestines and pig stomach and chicken feet, so I felt like I should order at least something that seemed authentically challenging. Plus I had a bold friend who was excited to dive in, so it seemed like the time for intestines.

They came served in a little Hot Pot, showing a possible Mongolian influence on Szechuan cooking, which was adorable with its little flame and kept the intestines bubbling. The intestines were like little calamari rings — deep-fried and crispy, hot and oily, with a mild gamey flavor that was not entirely unpleasant. Real Chinese food is like that for me, strange and mind-blowing without always being comfortable. It came in a glossy sauce thick with Szechuan peppercorns and chiles, with mushrooms and bell peppers and halved garlic cloves. The cumin attested to a Uighur influence. I cannot say I wanted the recipe, but it was thrilling to see it served in Arcata.

Leek pancake.

The Pan-Fried Leek Turnover was a stuffed pancake and it was delicious. I was surprised by the preponderance of leeks on the menu. I haven’t seen them on Chinese American menus. Leeks have a pleasant oniony flavor like scallions, so I was pleased to see them.

Fried trumpet mushrooms.

The Trumpet Mushrooms were sensational — crispy flat pieces, ightly battered and fried, made from rehydrated dried mushrooms, so the texture was chewy and the flavor intensified. In a garlicky sweet and sour sauce with cilantro they were sublimely addictive.

There are several Secret Menu items that need to be ordered a few days ahead — like “Lamb Soup,” which I’m dying to try, and “8 Treasure Rice Pudding,” which the waiter told us is a popular treat for special occasions in China. I am going to pre-order a few for my birthday.

Szechuan Garden is reasonably priced and although I can’t comment (yet) on how the extensive regular menu is, except for the Trumpet Mushrooms. I was impressed by all of the dishes we ordered. The chef clearly knows a thing or two about Chinese cooking. I’m so pleased to report another really interesting restaurant in Humboldt! If you go, don’t forget to mention bringing back the Dim Sum! I can’t wait to try it.

Secret menu!

Let’s bring this dim sum menu back from the dead!