I wasn't a born skeptic when it comes to Sichuan food in the U.S., but I've been trained as one.
It happened slowly. It started by going to restaurants that proudly proclaim their authenticity or quality, only to find that their idea of Sichuan is "Chinese-American but with a few more chilies." I'd go to restaurants with chefs who supposedly "trained in Sichuan province," to discover that not all schools in Sichuan are on equal footing. The worst was when trusted friends or authorities would send me to the "best" Sichuan joint in their town, only to discover that our Sichuan scales are calibrated quite differently.
So it was with more than a bit of skepticism that I found myself sitting at a table at the Rosemead location of Chengdu Taste, a mini-chain of Sichuan restaurants in LA's San Gabriel Valley. I'd heard Jonathan Gold wax poetic about it. Our friend Zach Brooks of Midtown Lunch vouched for it (and joined us), and our host, Phil Rosenthal (of Everybody Loves Raymond and soon-to-be I'll Have What Phil's Having fame) swore up and down that it's the best Sichuan restaurant in the country.
I needn't have worried, for all three were absolutely right. We had a large round table with eight diners and managed to order enough to fill and clear that table twice, nearly every dish pitch-perfect. Chengdu taste is far and away the best Sichuan restaurant I've been to outside of Sichuan province itself. In fact, it's a good deal better than some of the Sichuan food I had in China. For anyone who's ever wondered what the big deal is with Sichuan food, for anyone who's just never got it, this should be the first and last stop on your spicy and numbing journey of Sichuan discovery.
I'm not a purist in terms of "traditional" Sichuan cooking, by any means, but even modernized Sichuan dishes need to capture some of the essence of the region. The funky bite of pickles and long-fermented sauces. The sharp tang of vinegar. The careful use of chilies not just for their heat, but for their aroma and the way in which they can excite the palate and liven up other flavors. The careful attention to texture that range from slippery and oily to fresh and crunchy. And of course, when appropriate, the use of Sichuan peppercorns, again not just for their mouth-numbing qualities, but for their citrusy, piney aroma. Chengdu Taste has its share of the classics—mapo tofu, double cooked pork, kung pao chicken, and the like—but the menu is not slavishly dogmatic with its representation of the region. What is never in question is the chef's understanding of the soul of Sichuan cooking, even when creating new riffs on it.
This is no secret, by the way. On any given day at lunch hour, you're bound to pull up to the strip mall to find a line out the door. There's no avoiding that. But this is one of the few lines worth waiting on.
Like at many Chinese restaurants, the menu is massive. Here's what your first picks should be.
Sichuan-Style Mung Bean Jelly With Chili Sauce
Cold appetizers are a Sichuan menu staple and this is the first of three that you should order. Slippery mung bean noodles have a bright, fresh, almost watery crunch to them, but once stirred together with a funky sauce of fermented beans, preserved and fresh chilies, fried peanuts, sesame seeds, and black vinegar, their flavor is anything but watery. If you're a fan of Dan Dan noodles, give this lighter, fresher, and more flavorful version a try.
Couple's Sliced Beef in Chili Sauce
Fuqi Feipian, or "couple's beef" is one of the all-time classics of Sichuan cuisine. The cuts of beef can vary on interpreation, but Chengdu Tastes' comes with thin slices of clean-tasting tripe that crunch between your teeth like jellyfish, along with slightly chewy slices of braised beef rump and tendon. It's served cold in a big pool of aromatic chili oil with black vinegar and plenty of garlic. I like to order some at the beginning of the meal and keep it on hand as a palate cleanser between bites of hotter, heavier stuff.
Spring Onion Chicken in Pepper Sauce
Here's a dish I've never seen anywhere else before, but became an instant favorite. Cold poached chicken that's as juicy and tender as the best Hainan-style chicken comes served in a shallow bowl filled with a bright green broth that has the fresh flavor of green spring onions, but with none of their pungent, breath-tainting aroma. I have no idea how they do it, but that's a trick I'd desperately like to see performed int he kitchen. Spots of glistening oil float on top of the broth with the flavor of Sichuan peppercorns and chilies.
Boiled Beef in Hot Sauce
Though this dish is more typically made with fish, shui zhu niu rou, made with slices of tender beef, is as accurate a yardstick as any for the quality of a Sichuan restaurant. Chengdu tastes' version looks threatening as the waiter places it in front of you, but it's actually quite a bit milder than many over-the-top versions I've had in the States. The chili oil that comprises the first quarter-inch of the broth is aromatic without being overwhelmingly painful to eat, and the beef is properly slippery and tender as it simmers in the hot broth. Dig around and you'll find bits of cabbage and celery underneath, ready to be dragged through the hot oil to coat them on their way to your mouth.
This is it. The first and last choice for my death row, desert island, final meal. I'd trade in my mother for a perfect bowl of mapo tofu if it weren't for the respect I have for her for introducing me to the dish in the first place. Chengdu Taste's version is about as traditional as it gets, with cubes of tender silken tofu in a oily fermented chili sauce flavored with tons of Sichuan pepper and just a touch of ground meat (traditionally beef is used, though perhaps Chengdu taste's is pork. It's such a small amount and mainly added for texture so I won't dock points for using either one). This one could go neck and neck with any mapo tofu I had in Sichuan, or with the version at Fuloon in Malden, MA, the still-excellent-but-dethroned former title holder of Best Sichuan Restaurant in the U.S. in my book.
Toothpick Lamb With Cumin
If Chengdu taste had a signature dish, this would be it. iny cubes of fatty, juicy lamb are skewered onto toothpicks, fried until crisp, then tossed in a silk road-influenced spice blend. You won't find it on the streets of Chengdu, though its flavors—chilies, sesame, cumin, and lamb—feature largely in the food of the region. Some folks say that the toothpicks are unnecessary. I find that they're absolutely necessary. They turn what would be a fiddly chopstick affair into a casual finger snack, perfect for downing while sipping a cold beer or the fantastic smoky prune juice they have on the menu (you'll want to order that too).
Boiled Fresh Fish with Green Pepper Sauce
If shui zhu yu—the fish-based equivalent of the boiled beef dish above—had a hotter, leaner, sexier cousin, this would be it. It packs in a lot of the same flavors and textures—the slipperiness of melt-in-your-mouth tender simmered fish, the heat of chilies, the citrus aroma of Sichuan peppercorns—but repackages them with altogether fresher flavors. Gone are the dried red chilies and chili oil. In its place are vast quantities of sliced fresh green chilies, a bit handful of mung bean sprouts, and an intense broth that'll clear your sinuses while simultaneously soothing your soul. I'm pretty sure you're not intended to drink the liquid on its own, but just you try and stop yourself.