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ChengDu, April/May 2009 - Report

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I've been in ChengDu for two days now and I'm in eating heaven. I'll be here for another day and a half and will continue to add to this thread.

We've been eating a lot of street food and it's been overall, unbelievably tasty. I do have to get past my ick factors when it comes to flies and kittens roaming around my feet, but that's me.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the areas I went to and what we ate.

We tried to do something "educational" so we went to WenShu Monastery. Unlike other temples I've been too, this was one more for praying and communing, v. tourists taking pictures everywhere. The gardens in the back were lovely. But, the streets around there had some great street food. One place, was this noodle stand and it was a production. The lady had all the different jars full of spices and sauces. When you placed your order, she would grab the bowl of noodles and immediately start spooning the requisite condiments into the respective bowls. We ordered Tien Sui Mien, which is essentially noodles with spicy sauce, and an order of suan la chow sau, dumplings. Both were wonderful and you can really taste the difference with the quality of sichuan peppercorns here in China. We also saw these fried banana bread things, but you had to buy them by the kilo (which was like 10 fried bananas to the bag). They smelled great but we had to pass.

We then wandered to the Sichuan University Area. Specifically we went to Guo Jia Qiao Bei Jie (near the intersection of KeHua Jie) and had a lot of snacking treats here. On the side parallel to Sichuan university, there was this amazing stand that was making fresh flat breads and crepes. They also had a pot of various stewed meats and eggs and you chose what you wanted the flat bread stuffed with (Guo Kui). We went for braised pork belly. The flat bread was fresh off the griddle and so puffy and hot. The stuffed meat just melted in to the bread itself. We also had a crepe like thing, where the guy spooned out batter, onto the griddle, cracked an egg and proceeded to add, peanut sesame sauce, crispy bits of bread and a bit of meat. The contrast of the hot crepe, the softness of the egg and the crispness of the bits of bread was so pleasing. Both these set us back less than a US dollar total.

Later, we wandered to the other side of the street (cross KeHua Jie) and looked at the food booths there. Unfortunately, we were kind of full and passed on numerous types of dumplings and noodles. But one stand grabbed our eyes because of the rotating pot. Inside were these fried fried dumplings. The bottom was crispy and when you took a bit, it was slightly hollow on the inside with a very thin layers of fragrant meat. Despite our fullness, we each polished off an order.

The last street food area we went to was on Heng De Lu (near the intersection of Yi Huan Bei Si Duan). We hit three different stands here for lunch. The furthest stand on the block was a dumpling stand. We ordered two different kinds - pork and chives and pork and celery. Both were amazing, especially since they were making the dough and dumplings right before us. They were the cutest little dumplings, about the size of a quarter.

After, we wandered over to the noodle stand and that was pretty mediocre. The noodles had a great texture but the accompanying sauce never quite soaked into the noodles.

The last place we hit is actually closest to the intersection. Instead of a specialty, they had a full menu. We went with water convulus, home style eggplant and this pork and bamboo like vegetable (gao shan). The latter two were nothing short of amazing. The eggplant were thinly sliced and stirfried with crisp mild hot peppers. The gao shan were very thin and stir fried with hot peppers and pork. They were remniscent of bamboo but tastier. There was also a bit of tomato in it.

More reporting to come.

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  1. Chen's Ma Po Tofu Restaurant

    I don't have the address handy but this was also a great dinner. We went with the ma po tofu, fish flavored eggplant and dan dan noodles. All were delicious, partly because the sichuan pepper was so flavorful. The tofu was ever so slightly too salty for me, but that's what the rice is for. The three dishes, plus too beers were about 60Y.

    2 Replies
    1. re: beetlebug

      Argh! I'm so jealous! Great report. I'm standing in a puddle of... drool. So happy you went to Chen's - and ordered the dad dan mien too. Did you get a chance to try their fried fish sticks? One of the spiciest but best dishes I've had i my life. My tongue is tingling and my forehead prickling on the verge of sweat just thinking about it. I don't mean to sound greedy, but did you take any pictures?

      1. re: archiek

        Unfortunately, I didnt take pictures of that meal. I left the camera in the room that night. And, I wish I knew about the fried fish snacks as well esp since it is unlikely we will be returning there during this visit (only one more dinner and a lot more street food to consume)

    2. >>We also had a crepe like thing, where the guy spooned out batter, onto the griddle, cracked an egg and proceeded to add, peanut sesame sauce, crispy bits of bread and a bit of meat. The contrast of the hot crepe, the softness of the egg and the crispness of the bits of bread was so pleasing. Both these set us back less than a US dollar total.

      Ooh, I love these things, too! I think they're called "jian1 bing3". When I get back to NYC, I'm want to learn how to re-create these in my home kitchen.

      And fantastic review(s), by the way. I'm thrilled to see all these new threads on Chinese cities outside of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong!

      1. I forgot one street snack near Sichuan U. ON the intersection of those two streets, there was this restaurant-stand that had skewers of meat and big flat breads. It seemed Muslim inspired but it was difficult to tell. The entire restaurant was being renovated so we just bought a flatbread and 6 skewers to share (3 beef and 3 lamb). These were tasty, esp the spice sprinkled on the meat. But the flat bread was just ok. Clearly sitting there a while. If we had just eaten these and not those fresh made beef stuffed meat things, I would have been thrilled. But, after eating superb street food, these got knocked down a notch.

        1. Yu Bos Family Kitchen
          43 Zhai Xiang Zi, Xia Tong Reng Road

          This is the restaurant that Fuschia Dunlop raved about in her memoir. Yu Bo is a friend of hers from when she was in cooking school and he opened this upscale Chinese restaurant. I almost hesitate in calling it chinese food because it is so inventive and unusual and definitely worth every penny we spent here.

          The Zhai Xiang Zi area is very interesting and new. It has been renovated and is almost like the Disney version of ChengDu. But it was a fun area and very lively with residents, lights and laughter. I do not know if this was because of May Day or just in general.

          When we finally found the restaurant, we were greeted by our server. We were then escorted past this lovely garden into a private HUGE banquet room just for the two of us. We asked her to be sure, and she said that it was for us and the smaller rooms were already booked. It was a lovely room and completely unexpected. I guess the diners all get a private room.

          On the table were an assortment of cold dishes, 12 in total and beautifully arranged. They all had contrasting flavors, textures and purposes. Of note were the skins of broad beans, the ginger marinated in dou ban and vegetable oil, the celery twists, the winter melon and the this lemony agary thing. Actually, there was not a bad dish the whole evening.

          The unfortunate thing is that while my chinese is more than passable, I do not know enough about specific food items to really know what the server was talking about. She explained the food in Sichuanese because it was more evocative and we would use chinese analogies to try and figure out what the items were. she went into great detail about each dish and answered all questions graciously.

          Along with the cold dishes, there was a chicken and chive dish. THe chicken was redolent with sichuan pepper and dou ban jian. It was delicious, but out of all the dishes, this was the weakest. And, this is all relative because I would have been happy eating this by itself.

          What followed after were about 21 dishes, all to delight the senses. It was almost overwhelming because we also wanted to return to the cold dishes. I am blanking on dishes now because I did not write them down and I do not have my camera handing. But, the dishes were all balanced in flavor and had contrasting textures. One standout was essentially a fried chicken breast with three different flavors, yu xiang, ma la taro and a third flavor. The yu xiang flavor was unbelievable. Perfect. There was also this broth that was from the stock of pig, chicken and fish. It was so clear and beautiful but the taste was just undescribable.

          All the dishes were also beautifully presented with nice touches, like the sichuan greens with a quail egg. The quail egg was turned into a little bunny with two little yellow eyes.

          I can not even begin to go into the experience between the private room and server to all the beautifully presented and delicious dishes.

          It was not cheap but well worth it. It was 600Y a head and we had three beers for 15Y each. The funny thing is that the only beer offered was Bud and it actually went well with the meal. The food brought the Bud out to a whole new level.

          Probably only one more ChengDu post since today is my last day.

          4 Replies
          1. re: beetlebug

            Thank you so much for these wonderful reports. I can't wait to read what's next!

            ~TDQ

            1. re: beetlebug

              Some pictures of the dishes.

              12 little eats to start.

              Edible paintbrushes. The handle was inedible bamboo. The tips were these strings of flour, slightly sweetened, with savory meat inside. You dip this in the chinese ketchup.

              Tea smoked duck with homemade bread.

              Chicken with three flavors of sichuan.

               
               
               
               
              1. re: beetlebug

                More pics:

                Greens with the cutest bunny quail egg.

                Broth made out of three kinds of meat - so simple looking but a tremendous flavor full of light and clarity.

                Dessert - firm jello like thing with peanut dusting.

                Back to the beginning - one of the cold plates. Every dish had this artistry and care.

                 
                 
                 
                 
                1. re: beetlebug

                  In 2004 Fuschia Dunlop brought Chef Yu to California for the Culinary Institute of America's annual Worlds of Flavors Conference. The report from that conference has a number of pictures of Yu Bo at work and discussing his craft.

                  http://is.gd/KUqR

                2. Last day in ChengDu and while I ate well, I'm not sure I maximized my eating.

                  We were on bikes exploring and we decided to try the street food that was near Fu Bo's Restaurant. We went up some side street where there were many people with various carts of food.

                  We started with cold noodles (liang mien) with regular noodles and fat rice noodles. These were very good, very ma la and a huge line. I had to fight my way to the front. The woman making them was amazing. She scooped the noodles into the bowl and added all the condiments. I took two orders and she knew how much of each noodles to scoop up. What I especially liked were the pieces of seaweed tossed in.

                  Next up were these mini crepey dumpling turnovers. The man scooped up batter into these small pans, forming crepe like things. You then chose the fillings, either savory or sweet. I went with savory since I needed something to cut the heat from the noodles. Anyway, he added the fillings, folded them in half and then put them aside. The crepe was lightly sweetened and a nice contrast to the savory filling.

                  There were other places that I saw but I was still full so had to pass.

                  Dinner, we tried the famed Sichuan hot pot at Chong Qing hot pot. Now, i eat a lot of spice and i can take the heat. But, this went over the top. I even asked them for two broths, one spicy and one "bland." And, the spicy one, they actually scooped out a lot of the dried hot pepper and sichuan peppercorn.

                  We went with beef, lamb, mushrooms, greens, cauliflour, eel, quail eggs, rice noodles and something else. WE also ordered this homemade scallion flatbread which was AMAZING. So crispy and light. Plus, it cut the heat so it was a win win.

                  The negative about this place is that the pot was never at the perfect level of boil. Either it was too high or barely broke a simmer. I ended up using the non spicy broth more than I thought it would but that sichuan pepper just overwhelmed everything - in not a good way.

                  That wraps up Cheng Du. Up next HangZhou which will be its own separate thread.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: beetlebug

                    If anyone plans to follow the op's footsteps, I've been working on a post to translate a typical Chengdu hot pot menu. Note that in Chengdu, fresh sichuan pepper buds are used which are far stronger than the dried kind and a place with Chongqing in the name will generally be more intense with the ma (numbing) and the la (hot). Peanut milk will calm the 'ma' of the sichuan pepper right down.

                    http://eatdrinkchengdu.blogspot.com/2...

                    1. re: beetlebug

                      I don't think it's physically possible for any hot pot to be at the perfect boil level, because you are constantly adding cold or room temperature ingredients.

                      1. re: Xiao Yang

                        I disagree about perfect boil level. My pot at home has a wide range of temperature. OF course, I am always fiddling with it to get it to my liking.

                        My issue with the temperature at this restaurant is that it had two settings - rapid boil and barely simmer. And, this is before anything is added to the pot.

                        1. re: beetlebug

                          I don't think I've ever been in a hot pot restaurant that didn't have a continuous flame level control knob/lever on it.

                    2. Have you come across the BEST Dan Dan noodles & did you get to try the camphor smoked duck?
                      If you get to choose only one or two restaurants in Chengdu, which would you recommend?

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: towkay

                        I can't comment on the best Dan Dan noodles since I only had it at Chen's Ma Po Tofu restaurant. It was tasty there. I did try tea smoked duck at Yu Bo's Restaurant. And I would recommend the two restaurants where I ate, Chen's and Yu's Family Restaurant, without reservations.

                        If I had to choose only one restaurant, it would be Yu's Family Restaurant.

                        1. re: beetlebug

                          I have both restaurants on my limited stay there end June & will comment later. Thank you for the great tip

                        2. re: towkay

                          impossible to find 'the best'. every place has its own version, and to me it tastes good every time. i did go to the place recommended in the 'Chengdu food guide' [even taxi driver couldn't find the address given in the all-Chinese-script 'guide'] and yes it was good, for rmb6 a bowl. [but then i'm no expert, i just love love love Chengdu's Sichuan food.]

                        3. Wow Beetlebug, I'm drooling! You're the one who introduced me to Dunlop and learning how to cook Sichuan, so I really appreciate getting to 'follow along' on your trip. Sounds fantastic.

                          Now I'm craving Sichuan, so going to make ma po dou fu and dry-fried beef for lunch!

                          1. My mouth is watering in so many different ways right now. This all sounds amazing, and I'm amused by the whole budweiser business. Guess I'm going to have to pull out my Dunlop books and make something very soon.

                            It all sounds amazing.