How to find good food in Chengdu

by on May 19, 2014 at 1:15 am in Food and Drink, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Many people in Chengdu are experts on the local food scene.  Recruit one of them, but don’t be shocked if they insist on paying for your meal every time.

2. Go downtown to the Crowne Plaza hotel, walk out on the main road to your left, and within two minutes you will see on your left a “TangSong food street” — a covered food court about twenty-five small Sichuan places.  There is a sushi place too but I saw the customers dipping their sushi rolls in hot red chili oil.  It is heartwarming to walk into such a culinary universe.

2b. Within this court my favorite place is labeled “1862 History,” you might spot the small print, in any case the place looks spare and is somewhat larger than the very small venues.

3. MaPo tofu is much finer here, and the black peppers and quality vinegars are to be appreciated.

4. Sichuan chili chicken and Dan Dan noodles are two of my favorite Sichuan dishes back home.  Here they have been good, but actually slightly disappointing relative to expectations.  Don’t obsess over those during your quest.

4b. There are two philosophies of international trade.  In one philosophy, the best dishes are the best dishes and so you should order them at home and also order them abroad in their countries of origin.  In the second philosophy, it is the most exportable dishes which get exported but they are not in general the best dishes period.  When abroad you therefore should try out the dishes you cannot find at home.  For Chengdu at least, this second philosophy is the correct one as Jacob Viner had hinted way back in the mid-1930s.

5. Often the most interesting dishes are the accompanying vegetables.  For instance at a hot pot restaurant I had excellent elongated yam cubes coated in a (slightly sweet) blueberry sauce and stacked ever so perfectly.  It was the ideal offset to the hotness and tingle of the core dishes.  At another restaurant I most enjoyed some simple greens dipped in a sesame soy sauce.  Or try potato or lotus root in hot pot.

6. Unless you go to great lengths to avoid this fate, you will end up eating strange parts of the animal.  You won’t like all of them, but you won’t dislike all of them either.

6b. If you utter “Ma La” with conviction, they will think you are remarkably sophisticated or perhaps even fluent in Chinese.  The populace here seems unaware that some version of real Sichuan food is now reasonably popular in the United States.

7. Many menus have photos, but they show lots of red and are not useful for identifying exactly what you will be eating.  See #6.

8. There are two areas — Jin Li and Wenshu Fang — where old buildings and streets are recreated and you can stroll in a kind of outdoor shopping mall.  Everyone goes to these locales and they are fun.  These neighborhoods are good for finding lots of takeaway Sichuan snacks, including desserts, in a single area, and served in sanitary conditions.  That said, I don’t think these are the very best Sichuan goodies to be had in town, as they are designed explicitly for tourists, albeit food-loving Chinese tourists.

9.   “Chengdu food” and “Sichuan food” are not the same thing.  Sichuan province has more people than France, and Chengdu is simply one large city, and so your favorite Sichuan dish may not be a staple here.  The town also has a fair amount of Tibetan food, though I haven’t tried any.

10. If you leave Chengdu confused as to exactly where and what you ate, you probably had a very good food trip.

Ray Lopez May 19, 2014 at 2:42 am

I’m surprised they have meat protein in restaurants, as that seems to be lacking in Asian countries, unless they cater to foreigners. Ergo, this place must be a place that caters to high-end locals or foreigners, not a place where “ordinary” Chendu Chinese eat. Not that I know Chendu, as I’ve only been to the airport. But from what I can extrapolate from reading between the lines. Your guide perhaps said to their self: here is a foreigner, I must impress him with some high-end Chinese restaurant, and offer to pay, as he is influential internationally and it will bring honor to my country. Just sayin’. The real food in China is meat protein deficient (hence they eat the whole animal; rice btw has 5 gr veg protein per cup). Chicken and pork are abundant since these animals will eat anything and are easier to grow than cows. Wild fish are over-harvested unless from a catfish pond and anyway fish are hard to grow (hyper sensitive to disease). Enjoy your meal.

david May 19, 2014 at 2:54 am

chengdu is a huge 14m strong city, it isn’t a minor town somewhere in the mountains

Ray Lopez May 19, 2014 at 4:06 am

@david – when I visited Beijing, which probably has 30M people within a 100 km radius, I was struck how bad and animal protein deficient the food was. Let’s face it: if you want good Chinese food, it’s going to be in a Chinatown in the USA. Enjoy your (happy?) meal.

WasinChinafor3Years May 19, 2014 at 7:20 am

I lived in china for a while. This may have been true in the past, but in any modern city in China meat is in EVERYTHING. Meat and oil in every dish. I think you may be out of date. Even “vegetarian” dishes are seasoned with meat. Of course, all parts of the animal are used and enjoyed.

david May 19, 2014 at 7:49 am

he’s not wrong that animal protein is sparingly used, and heavily as slices, stocks, and flavouring instead of meat chunks. The thing is, this remains true even in very wealthy Asian countries – FAO data suggest that Japan has a lower per capita consumption of poultry, pork, and red meat than China, even with China’s relative poverty and Japan’s relative degree of Westernization. South Korea is also lower (albeit higher than Japan). So it can’t be put down to poverty or relative rural population.

Ray Lopez May 19, 2014 at 11:15 am

@WasinChinafor3Years–you may be right. I was only there in 2007 for a few weeks. I do note however that south Chinese and Asian food in general is delicious because they use the secret Filipino and southeast asian formula: sugar in everything. Hehe, even the American ‘juice’ companies have caught on over the last two generations. Enjoy your…obesity.

wiki May 19, 2014 at 10:36 am

Not only are you out of date about China, you are confused about the US. The best Chinese food in the USA is rarely in Chinatown. It’s in a suburban mall in areas where more affluent Chinese tend to live. Middle class Chinese don’t like big cities and prefer suburbs because of schooling. The better food will be in strip malls with heavy Asian clientele. Hence, Monterey Park is better than LA Chinatown. The Maryland burbs over DC, etc. You probably don’t even know where to eat Chinese food in Manila unless your friends are foodie Chinoys.

Ray Lopez May 19, 2014 at 11:13 am

@wiki–so Monterey Park in Los Angeles is the ‘burbs? I guess you think Pasadena, CA is the burbs. I guess you think Silver Spring Maryland and maybe even Gathersburg, MD is the ‘burbs. You are out of date: living in the 1950s. And you are not right about Manila Chinese food: the best Chinese food is Lugang Cafe found in Mall of Asia and Megamall.

wiki May 19, 2014 at 12:16 pm

RL: It’s you who said Chinatown not me. Now you’re just redefining your terms so that Chinatown becomes a tautology. The places you just mentioned are not in any of the Chinatowns associated with LA, SF, or NY. There are specific places referred to as Chinatown in each of those cities. The near burbs are where Chinese live, NOT the city, which is the point I was making. As for Manila, Lu Gang is ok. But even if I give you that, you’re making my point. Mall of Asia and Mega are NOT in the Chinatown areas of Binondo. The RP segregates off from the dodgy areas by building large malls to create public spaces that are safe, instead of heading out of the city proper as Americans do.

Jan May 19, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Malls of the Philippines are hellholes, including the food, though I have not tried this particular place.

Silver Spring almost no decent Asian places (can think of one dim sum spot). It is the opposite of Rockville/Gaithersburg when it comes to Chinese food.

cliff arroyo May 19, 2014 at 5:07 am

Spoilsport. Tyler was having his happy “I’m so down with local food, damn I’m a local food maven!” moment and you have to burst his bubble.

prior_approval May 19, 2014 at 2:56 am

‘Recruit one of them, but don’t be shocked if they insist on paying for your meal every time.’

Economist discovers there is such a thing as a free lunch.

dan1111 May 19, 2014 at 7:21 am

Heh.

Rahul May 19, 2014 at 2:58 am

Re 5. So true. I used to frequent a Korean restaurant just to savor the accompaniments that came with the Bibimbap. The oftener I went & the bigger our group the more numerous & exotic the choices became.

I wish they’d let me order the accompaniments sampler.

Adrian Ratnapala May 19, 2014 at 4:45 am

Unless you are Ray Lopez, for whom “good food” implies “meaty food”.

I wonder how that works in the Philippenes. I suppose their culture is more western influenced than many others in Asia, but I never really had a clue what their cuisine is like.

Rahul May 19, 2014 at 4:55 am

I don’t know about Philippines but I never noticed this meat deficit in other parts of Asia. I mean, yes, if you are talking of the average (poorer) native’s daily diet sure. But in a typical restaurant’s menu you can get as much meat as you like. Like all the Indian tandoori dishes are almost entirely meat. So also bulgogi or katsu etc.

Adrian Ratnapala May 19, 2014 at 5:04 am

I’d put it the other way around. Western cuisine is sometimes curiously meat-heavy. You might have a steak or Schnitzel with some vegitable accompanyment of about equal mass. In a typical Sri Lankan meal, at least half the mass will be rice, and the rest divided between different curries, of which one will be meat. I like Steak, but I can’t quite bring myself to think it is natural (even though it is).

jon May 19, 2014 at 10:04 am

Doing my best to ignore Ray Lopez’ ridiculous crusade against Chinese food, there was one thing item on the list I found quite amusing.

”6b. If you utter “Ma La” with conviction, they will think you are remarkably sophisticated or perhaps even fluent in Chinese. The populace here seems unaware that some version of real Sichuan food is now reasonably popular in the United States.”

I can assure you that no, people do not actually think that, no matter how impressed they might seem.

jon May 19, 2014 at 10:07 am

Forgot to mention this in my original post, but I when it comes to, “Sichuan Chili Chicken。” I’ve had much tastier versions of it in Sichuan restaurants outside of Chengdu (and in plenty of non-Sichuanese restaurants as it’s an extremely common dish).

Rahul May 19, 2014 at 11:27 am

That’s exactly why I think authenticity (in food) is overrated.

anon May 19, 2014 at 9:00 pm

I’d like to see a post on this topic: authenticity, it’s importance, the macro forces behind what makes a dish good, what makes a cuisine fusion or alteration cuisine-improving.

libertarianinchina May 20, 2014 at 1:03 am

+1. I think authenticity is the most overrated aspect of eating.

Careless May 19, 2014 at 8:33 pm

In fact, even if you’re an excellent Chinese speaker, a fair number of them won’t believe you speak Chinese.

jon May 20, 2014 at 2:09 am

In all fairness, the number of foreigners who weren’t exposed to Chinese as a child and can be called “excellent Chinese speakers” is vanishingly small.

Jonathan May 19, 2014 at 5:50 pm

Be sure to try tibetan lamb

Mark Thorson May 19, 2014 at 10:39 pm

And the dog.

A.West May 20, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Sorry I didn’t pay attention enough to know you were going to Chengdu. My wife grew up there, still have family there, so maybe could have offered some tips.
I take the appetizer “husband wife heart & lung” to be a key test of a Chengdu restaurant’s skill.
We have visited Chengdu repeatedly over the past 10 years, I’m afraid the food has gone downhill somewhat. Last year we left disappointed,
despite visiting the old famous places. The food is good, but not as good as in memory. Chengdu restaurants are now less authentic to themselves! The fancy banquet places appear to be focusing on justifying higher prices via “premiumization” rather than focusing on taste. Does mapo tofu taste better with sea cucumber in it? No, it tastes worse, but it gives them the excuse to charge more and be fancier.
At the nicer restaurants it’s now more difficult to find the old standards like twice cooked pork, 3 pepper chicken, fishy eggplant, mapo tofu, etc. Almost as if the classic dishes are too low class for the nicer restaurants. Maybe the middle class restaurants do these better, but when one is visiting, that’s not the place you go for celebrations and get togethers. Another aspect seems to be a desire to replace the traditional hot bean paste bases with fresh peppers. But hot bean paste actually supplies more and a different kind of flavor than fresh chopped peppers!
Hot Pot is about the same, but now to show wealth, people put more fish in it, not my favorite stuff to dump in.

CWitzel May 21, 2014 at 11:05 pm

We had Kung Pao chicken at a 5 story restaurant in Xian in 2008. Our translator ordered it for us and when we asked what it was, we were amazed. Nothing like what you get in the US.

At a guerrilla restaurant in Hong Kong in 2012, I had an amazing Sichuan chili soup. The whole top of the soup was chili flakes. Great stuff and I love it. Maybe if I am lucky I will make it to Chengdu.

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