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Sep 15, 2010 02:32 AM

A Sichuan menu in Westborough? (Cheng-Du restaurant)

Due to an amazing conflation of random events, I discovered that the Cheng-Du restaurant in Westborough now has a Sichuan menu (as opposed to a "Szechuan" menu of the sort perpetrated by that evil fraud known as Joyce Chen.) I haven't been able to find anything on here about this. Maybe someone (other than me) should check it out (since I have like six months' backlog of eating to do at the moment.)

For the most part this is a small selection of the usual standards, but the lamb with cilantro, cumin, la jiao and hua jiao does get pretty much every flavor i like into a single dish.

~ Kiran <>

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  1. Thanks for this tip --- I look forward to checking this out next time I see my friend who recently moved to this area.

    But I don't understand your overly bumptious words about Joyce Chen. She did more than anyone since Buwei Yang-Chao or Cecilia Chiang to popularize more authentic Chinese food in the United States. It's unfair to judge her restaurant by the standards of 2010.

    1 Reply
    1. re: lipoff

      I'll haven't looked at her cookbook in years, but from what I've been able to tell so far, what she did for Sichuan food was make up some names and some Americanized (so to speak) dishes to go with them. My impression so far is that she's a far cry from either of the people you mention, both of whom seem to hold up quite well by the standards of 2010.

    2. Whoa Kiran, hold it hold it hold up!

      When I was a little kid we used to eat at Joyce Chen in Alewife (Where a day school now stands at the corner of Alewife Brook Parkway and Rindge Av.) and my parents used to eat at her place on Memorial Drive as grad students before I was born. All those Asian students flocking to the latest Sichuan place now? Well that was my parents decades ago at Joyce Chen except they were cellphone-less and didn't need CH or Yelp to tell them where to go. Even if we trekked into various Chinatowns most weekends, Joyce Chen definitely stands out in my memories. It was definitely comfort food for us. Her food wasn't what you make it out to be, and you are definitely in the minority as most people greatly respect her accomplishments and still lament her passing on and the demise of her establishments.

      How can you knock her if you never even ate there? It's really cool what you do now, checking out and reporting new digs, but it's somewhat literally owed to Joyce Chen.

      4 Replies
        1. re: tatsu

          Yah, I am not even a huge Joyce Chen fan, but "evil frad" is an absurd overstatemednt, and as you said she does deserve her props for being WAY ahead of the curve.

          1. re: tatsu

            Based on what I've been able to tell, Joyce Chen (who was from Beijing and lived in Shanghai before immigrating to the US) was instrumental in popularizing a second round of Americanized food, this time with a different set of names often including the word "Szechuan" in the title, but not actually reflecting the food eaten in Sichuan province. I hardly need to list examples of the kinds of dishes I'm talking about; they can be found in abundance on the American side of the current Cheng-Du Restaurant's American menu (their special menu does provide a good summary of the classic Sichuan dishes) as well as on many others such as the specials menu at Beijing Star where they admit they don't even have any Sichuan peppercorn in the restaurant. Mary Chung's provides another classic example of a restaurant which claims to be serving Sichuan food, but doesn't actually have much of it on the menu.

            Perhaps Joyce Chen was also serving things that, while they might be Americanized for various reasons, were clearly derived from traditional Sichuan food, such as fuqi fei pian, water-cooked beef, and ma po dou fu (in the traditional style with chilli bean paste and huajiao, which were available even in the Midwest 30 years ago.) But *I* haven't been able to find any evidence to support this. Tatsu, do you remember the menu well enough to know whether she was serving anything that would clearly be seen today as Sichuan food? Merely being popular with your parents, or being the place you go for comfort food, says nothing about the *type* of food she cooked. I'm not disputing that it was well-prepared, I'm disputing that it *resembles Sichuan food* in the sense that Cecelia and even Buwei provide recognizably authentic examples of what they write about.

            I'm also claiming that this remains a problem today. What *this* round of dumbing-down has done is left yet another generation of Americans with the idea that they know about Chinese cuisine, this time Sichuan (as well as Hunan), because they had it at a restaurant down the road from where they grew up. Nobody would make this mistake about (for example) Dongbei cai; a new, good, unabashedly Dongbei place opening up would probably get a lot more press than *yet* *another* restaurant with Sichuan in the name. There's a Sichuan restaurant on practically every street corner, after all.

            I'm attributing a big chunk of the popularity of this misunderstanding to Joyce Chen and the people she influenced. Robert Nadeau, for example, talks about a "Mandarin-Szechuan tradition" as if there actually were such a thing. The people who've been thusly misled aren't willing to drive the hour or so to a place like Lao Sichuan (or further for Hunan food--I still know of none closer than NYC and nothing *great* other than Hunan Taste near Baltimore) that can serve them authentic food.

            They don't even know what that food is.

            This hurts the restaurants, who have to resort to serving Tangerine Beef to stay in business, at which point Nadeau accuses them of being "immoral" because they don't stand behind every dish on their menu. And it hurts the people themselves, who don't get even a chance to try the amazing ride we've been on for the past half-decade or so.

            In fact, it's exactly this misunderstanding that led me to find the Sichuan menu at Cheng-Du. My friends were talking about the strangeness of "Thailand Cafe" serving great Sichuan food. I brought up "Hong Kong Palace" and they argued that at least HK was part of the same country. So I wondered whether Thailand was closer to Chengdu than Hong Kong (which it isn't.) I observed out loud that if you type 成都 into Google Maps, you get a city in China, where if you type 上海 you get restaurants in Brookline. My friend, who hadn't seen me entering Chinese, found this strange because there were several Cheng-Du restaurants in the area, and everybody knew they served (drum roll please) "Szechuan food."

            I was skeptical, so we looked it up, and lo and behold, *now* it has actual Sichuan food as well. A restaurant with "Chengdu" in the English name, serving food from Sichuan province! That, I think, is some kind of sign of a major turning point.

            But we could've been there at least two decades ago. As I said above, if anyone has evidence (such as a menu, or perhaps a contemporaneous review--time to head to the paper library) that shows Joyce Chen did serve food that was recognizably authentic, instead of just differently or slightly less Americanized, I'm happy to have it, but from what *I* can determine, what *I* owe to Joyce Chen is an even greater difficulty in communicating about a cuisine I truly love, and an equally greater difficulty in persuading people that they should, even when it involves real effort, try the actual thing itself, not what they think is the thing.

            ~ Kiran <>

            1. re: KWagle

              I went to Joyce Chen's restaurant when I was younger, but I don't remember it well, other than eating Peking Ravioli (the name she coined for guo1 tie1). But my parents went to it often, as my father worked for twenty-five years right around the corner from it. They recollect "Mandarin" food, which doesn't sound completely authentic, but they say was very different from the Cantonese food that they were accustomed to otherwise. When they moved to Boston in the early 1970s they said it was the only restaurant around that served that kind of food. They said it was totally unlike the Cantonese restaurants and didn't have any of the "gimmicks" of the Polynesian restaurants.

              I also have a copy of Joyce Chen's 1962 cookbook, given to my (Jewish) grandmother by her best friend in 1976. My grandmother would often make recipes from it. Looking through the table of contents, I see many now familiar Americanized Chinese dishes, such as:

              Egg Rolls
              Barbecued Spare Ribs
              Beef with Broccoli
              Egg Foo Yung
              Mandarin Moo Shi Pork

              However, I also see a number of authentic Chinese dishes, such as:

              Tea Eggs (cha2 ye4 dan4)
              Peking Duck (Bei3 jing1 kao3 ya1)
              Jellied Lamb Loaf (yang2 gao1 mei3 jiu3)
              Lion Head (shi1 zi tou2)
              Steamed Fish (qing1 zheng1 yu2)
              Chinese Cabbage with Chicken Fat (ji1 you2 cai4 xin1)
              Peking Meat Sauce Noodles (zha2 jiang4 mian4)

              Reading through her cookbook (you can get a copy in many local libraries), it's clear that it is what it is --- not a gastronomic encyclopedia from the Qing court, or even Buwei Yang Chao's "How to Cook and Eat in Chinese" but very much a product of its time. It seems to mix authentic and Americanized recipes, and simplify things for the home cook and for those who couldn't get Chinese ingredients. However, it also explains in great detail lots about the structure of Chinese meals, when certain dishes are eaten, about different sauces and spices, how to use chopsticks, how to fold wontons, and more.

              And it's without pretension. After her recipe for egg rolls, she says "This is not authentic" but explains that "This is the exact filling used in the egg rolls which I made especially for the schools", recalling the story she tells in the introduction about how she cooked for the "mother's food table" at her children's school. The other food she cooked didn't sell, but her egg rolls sold out quickly. I think it's clear that Joyce Chen wasn't a Chinese food purist, and struck a balance between authenticity and catering to American tastes. On the one hand, I can lament that too. But on the other hand, I think she did widen the scope of Chinese food in the United States, and I believe is responsible for the usual variety of wheat-based dishes at many otherwise mediocre Chinese restaurants in the Boston area. At somewhat random places here one can often find good Peking Ravioli, Scallion Pancakes, and various noodles. Those same menu items are less common outside of Boston. This seems like an important legacy too.

          2. I tried this place in February. Not impressed at all. I can't really distinguish between S. Gourmet, S. Garden, S. Palace, Chili Garden, and Top Garden, but they are all head and shoulders above this place. I would up throwing out the leftovers...and I NEVER throw out Chinese leftovers.

            Top Garden
            1921 Main St Ste 1, Tewksbury, MA 01876

            2 Replies
            1. re: Dinsdale45

              Is Sichuan Palace still around? The one brief thread I found on here listed a URL that doesn't work.

              I went to Sichuan Garden once, and was completely unable to communicate my desire for numbing peppercorn to the waiter, so we didn't get any. Though to be fair it was post-lunch, so they probably didn't have their best people on staff. They do have a Chinese language menu, and I should sit down and translate it sometime soon.


              Sichuan Palace
              7 Summer Street, Chelmsford, MA 01824

              1. re: KWagle

                S. Palace was around last time I checked, but looking over on Yelp, it looks like there was a recent ownership change and the place has gone downhill. It was my local Chinese food mainstay, but I haven't been there in a couple of months. The website is still down, so maybe they've gone under?

            2. I have lived in Westborough for 10 years. We eat here by default when we don't want to drive to Framingham (SG of Red Pepper). They first introduced this menu last year (2009) then abruptly cancelled it no reason given. Then they reinstated this year. The food is radically different and IMHO not as good as it was before. Conclusion: old chef quit, took them sometime find a replacement.


              2 Replies
              1. re: Seamus7

                My experience was exactly the same as Seamus. We got the Szechuan menu when it was first introduced, and Ithought it was quite good, though not as good or as in-depth as SG or Red Pepper. It was canceled, then came back...and it just isn't much different from the rest of the menu anymore.

                Red Pepper
                122 White St, Haverhill, MA 01830

                1. re: Seamus7

                  I heard the old chef came back recently and the food is much better.