A Dream Trip to Chengdu, China
Chengdu was the first Asian city to win UNESCO designation as a City of Gastronomy. The people there know that the cuisine is good; someone told me that you come to China for food, but you come to Chengdu for flavor. Forever on my bucket list as I’m a big fan of Sichuanese food, I finally got to Chengdu. And fell in love with it.
It wasn’t just the food that was captivating, though. Unlike other Chinese cities I’ve visited, there’s a peacefulness about the place. One afternoon, I looked through the window of a store and saw all the workers sitting on the floor—drinking tea, talking and smiling. I asked my guide if they do this daily. He replied: “That’s Chengdu.”
Here are just a few highlights of my trip earlier this year, food-heavy, of course. And a little more picture/video-heavy than usual.
I knew about some of the noodles in Chengdu, namely the ones I’d find at the amazing Chunyangguan—my first stop, about an hour after deplaning. Little did I realize how many types of noodles I’d find during my stay. From traditional dan dan mian to tian shui mian (which I made at home one time ahead of the trip) to new discoveries like pugai mian, I couldn’t get enough of all the delicious noodles. Some places offered a big bowl as a meal, but most often the noodles would be small snacks, unless ordering a ton of them at a time. (And why not? They’re so inexpensive.) I was so surprised by my noodle finds that I wrote a guide as my first article for Lucky Peach.
Making pugai mian:
Ma po tofu
As much as I love noodles, my favorite dish in the world is ma po tofu. I can eat it daily, so naturally I enjoyed it five consecutive days in Chengdu. The “original” version at Chen Ma Po Tofu was okay but didn’t especially wow me. I sampled one special version of it with pig brains at “fly restaurant” Ming Ting. (Fly restaurants are bare-bone, busy places serving cheap and delicious food.) It was interesting, though the texture of the pig brain is too close to the tofu to be a compelling dish. And I actually got a hands-on lesson in cooking ma po tofu at one restaurant. It took time for me to learn how to handle the heat of the wok, while the resident chef was impressed how much (spicy) heat I could handle in the food!
Speaking of heat, no trip to Chengdu is complete without at least one hot pot experience. I especially enjoyed one at the popular Da Zhai Men, though navigating the menu can be tough without language skills to read it. I probably over-ordered offal items, but that’s what I most wanted to try as some of it is unavailable in Seattle. (Plus, the textures are fun.) The hot pots are intensely spicy, with that realization strongest the moment you stop eating. (Which means you should just keep going!) Still, I didn’t break a sweat during my entire trip, though my body felt close to overheating during the overnights.
Aside from a few bigger meals, I mainly snacked my way through the city. The streets are fun to stroll, with little markets in many places. And of course lots of interesting street food. I wanted to eat what the everyday people eat, so I didn’t go to any of the several higher-end restaurants, except for one: Mi Xun Teahouse at The Temple House hotel. It was good, and a sign of what I think we’ll be seeing more in the future.
Would they be like my terracotta warrior experience in Xi’an, interesting but not enough to distract me from food? No. The pandas are much more fun. But go early. While there will soon be a train that reaches the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, it’s worth taking a taxi to arrive before the tour buses—which inexplicably come after feeding. Early means more cuteness for you to enjoy. Go right at opening, and you can be done in time for late breakfast.
A side trip to Chongqing
Formerly part of Sichuan province, Chongqing is now one of four “direct-controlled municipalities” in China. All you need to know is that it’s a two-hour high-speed train ride from Chengdu. Chongqing’s not a particularly pretty city, and the terrain makes it a tough one to walk. But it’s got the same cheap taxis as Chengdu, and it’s a good place to try more noodles, hot pot that’s spicier than Chengdu’s, and the namesake Chongqing chicken (la zi ji). Also, the “old town” of Ciqikou (Porcelain Village), while touristy, is worth a visit.
Here’s a look at a wonderfully friendly vendor preparing xiao mian for my breakfast (wish I could say it’s me speaking Chinese, but that’s a friend from Seattle):
Sing-songy man making potato starch noodles in Ciqikou:
Meat market in Chongqing:
I’m not aware of a guidebook specific to Chengdu, and information on the Internet is still a bit sparse. Fortunately, there are some terrific resources for food lovers who want to visit Chengdu.
Jordan Porter operates Chengdu Food Tours. He’s an affable Canadian who adores the city and the surrounding area. His tour company has a couple of regular offerings: a half-day eating tour in Chengdu proper, and a half-day escape from the city to explore a bit of the beauty, cuisine and culture of the Sichuan countryside. Even better, he can work with you in designing a custom tour based on your specific needs and desires. When I met Jordan, he was in the middle of a multi-day experience with a visitor who wanted a private ping pong lesson. Jordan arranged it!
Lost Plate Food Tours is another excellent option for a Chengdu food tour. I first met these folks last year in Xi’an, and was thrilled to learn that they expanded to Chengdu. (The empire is growing, as they’re now also in Beijing.) As part of a group, a local food guide will take you by tuk-tuk through the back streets of the city, stopping at 4-5 locations along the way before finishing at a local spot for drinks and relaxation. My favorite part of the tour was going to a somewhat hidden, house-like (we climbed through a window) restaurant to eat a wide array of delicious dumplings.
Lily Chen at WestChinaGo Travel Service is a local who offers both predesigned tours and custom-built ones. As someone who has lived in the area for a long time, Lily can unearth hidden gems that are well worth visiting. While I was focused on finding the best food in Chengdu, Lily filled in the cultural gaps by taking me to places like a monastery to listen to some chanting and a unique gallery where I enjoyed some fantastic art.
Trevor James is better known as The Food Ranger. His extremely popular YouTube channel is an exhaustive resource for anyone who wants insight into the food scene of Chengdu and beyond. With unbridled enthusiasm, Trevor eats anything and everything (well, he did struggle with some intestines recently), documenting it all in captivating videos accompanied by helpful notes. I enjoyed the opportunity to do a little eating with Trevor during my final night in Chengdu, and am excited (and a bit jealous!) that he’s now enrolled at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, where he’ll gain knowledge that furthers his food credentials.
Thanks to the Grand Hyatt Chengdu for offering me a discounted media rate for my stay. The location is convenient, the property is beautiful, and the staff is incredibly courteous—even when language is the occasional obstacle. Breakfast there is delicious, a convenience even while a world of amazing food awaits just outside the hotel doors.