Sichuan Street Food Spices Up Mount Baker

Boboji at Little Chengdu

Sia Zhang and Alison Deng are trying to spice things up in Mount Baker. As owner and manager, respectively, of the newly opened Little Chengdu, they are bringing the heat to an area otherwise known for cool and crisp Vietnamese food. In fact, their location near the Mount Baker light rail station has been home to Vietnamese restaurants in the recent past. Fresh herbs have now faded in favor of the Sichuan peppercorns and red hot chili peppers that form the foundation of the ma la (numbing and spicy) sensation of Sichuan food.

Zhang and Deng are a food obsessive pair who have been eating around Seattle but haven’t been able to find the kind of Sichuan food they crave. As a result, the two decided that they wanted to start their restaurant business “to share their passion for good food and some unrepresented parts of Sichuan cuisine, namely street food-style” according to Deng.

The restaurant has been months in the making. Prior to opening, Zhang cooked at home and did some informal catering to refine her dishes and build a potential menu. Currently in soft opening stage, the restaurant features what’s trendy in Chengdu, along with some classics from Zhang’s childhood.

Don’t look for the big plates of the typical stir-fried food, served family style, that you’ll find in many other Chinese restaurants. Deng encourages diners to sample a number of small dishes to enjoy a variety of flavors and textures. Note that as she and Zhang assess what’s popular, the menu is a bit of a moving target, with a few of the current dishes destined for deletion, such as ma po tofu and braised eggplant with minced pork. (Personally, I hope the menu doesn’t become too Americanized. I was sad to see that a highly anticipated bowl of pork intestines with glass noodles was quickly replaced by a “Chengdu chow mein.”)

Little Chengdu’s split bowl of noodle soups: braised beef (left) and dan dan (right)

Destined to be popular are the split bowls of noodles. The “yin-yang” design is often featured locally at hot pot places, and it’s nice to now see a noodle option so that even solo diners can bring variety to their orders. Dan dan noodles are the red chili oil type, made as in Chengdu with a scant portion of meat. Braised beef noodle soup offers shreds of lean beef, while chili beef noodle soup brings the highest amount of heat. That said, the spice level is significantly short of what I found in Chengdu, so ask for more chili if you dare.

You’ll find more ma la action in a dish that is perhaps impossible to find elsewhere in Seattle: boboji.  Place an order and get skewers of gizzard, lotus root, potato, cauliflower, and seaweed in red chili oil infused with lots of Sichuan peppercorn, guaranteed to leave a numbing feeling. There’s talk that a related dish called chuan chuan will soon to make an appearance at the restaurant.

Fen zheng rou (with beef) at Little Chengdu

Another dish worth considering is fen zheng rou, which is meat steamed with rice powder in a bamboo basket. Available with beef or pork, the real interest is the rice powder, which absorbs all the juices and flavors of the meat while cooking.

Soon to come are Chinese pancakes, available both savory (think pork and pickled beans or pork flakes with mayonnaise) and sweet (with pork flakes and condensed milk or perhaps seasonal jam). They’ll be quickly made to order and a fun way to start or finish a meal.

Deng says that she expects a secret to Little Chengdu’s success will be the sourcing of certain spices directly from China. “Sichuan peppercorns are fresher,” she says, adding that “there are varieties of chili peppers that are simply unavailable locally.” She’s excited about the restaurants location, which she says is changing with a growing number of young people who are not going out for fast food, but instead seeking new, interesting options. Hopefully, Little Chengdu will maintain its initial mission to spotlight unrepresented parts of Sichuan cuisine, and in turn see the local community embrace it.

Originally published at Ethnic Seattle on February 14, 2018.