Return to Chengdu: A Photo-Heavy Food Journey
When I look back at my last report on Chengdu, there was the obligatory photo of a panda at the start, with the first food photo being noodles and dumplings at a beloved restaurant called Chunyangguan. This trip would see plenty of pandas and noodles as well (I was so surprised by and taken with Sichuan noodles that Lucky Peach—RIP—asked me to write an article about them), though I had plenty of other food adventures, including an amazing opportunity to go shopping with a chef and learn to make some favorite dishes at a local cooking school.
Noodles, Dumplings, and other Doughy Things
Chunyangguan was the restaurant I most regretted not revisiting during my stay in 2016. So it’s no surprise I prioritized it as an early stop upon returning to Chengdu. And it’s as good as before. Bowls of noodles and dumplings remain about a dollar each, so it’s worth sampling a bunch. I especially enjoyed the dan dan mian and the special “xiaomian” (extra spicy) with cowpeas (pickled long beans), though the real treasure here are still the hongyou chaoshou—red chili oil wontons with a slight bit of sweetness. The workers are friendly and if you having trouble reading the menu, you can now request an English version, courtesy of my friend Trevor James—better known as The Food Ranger.
I also returned to Rongrong Beida Pugaimian, eating there twice, as the bedspread noodles are unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else. They’re big and chewy, and while I tried a few different bowls this time (the pork rib version I call paigu pugai is fun to say!), my favorite remains the one with bell peppers, chili peppers, green onions, and various chicken parts, including crunchy gizzards.
Also worthy of a return visit was Liaoliao, where the aforementioned Trevor personally introduced me to jiangdou zajiang mian. I loved the dish so much that I was inspired to learn to make it at home. These “dry noodles” (there’s sauce at the bottom with chili oil, soy sauce, sesame, garlic water, and more) are like dan dan noodles, but topped with pickled long beans (cowpeas) along with ground pork. Part of the ritual of eating them is mixing well beforehand before indulging in what Trevor would describe as “noodle heaven.”
One last return visit for noodles went to Dongzi Wei Zhang Lao Er Liangfen, better known as “that place across from Wenshu Monastery.” This is where I first had tian shui mian, the udon-like “sweet water” noodles that are painted red with chili oil sauce and ground chili, but also sweetened with a sprinkling of sugar. They are enchanting.
I had more tian shui mian as part of a little noodle and dumpling feast at the even longer-named Xi Yue Cheng Tan Dou Hua Wang Fu Jin Dian. One of the highlights here was the dou hua mian, with fresh tofu playing well with the noodles.
For some sourness mixed in spicy broth, I paid a visit to Ganji Feichangfen, famed for its suan la fen with pig intestines. I loved the chewiness of both the sweet potato starch noodles and the intestines, which includes one massive knotted piece per bowl. Guo kui (flatbread stuffed with beef or pork) is the perfect accompaniment to suan la fen; unfortunately, a late arrival meant that the delicious ones at nearby Wangji Tese Guokui were temporarily sold out. Still, the stand-bys on-site at Ganji Feichangfen were satisfying.
My top choices for the pita-like guo kui at Yan Taipo Guokui (near Wenshu Monastery) would also be sold out, so after a long wait in line, I settled upon secondary choices. They’re all good, though I recommend that in contrast to any of the meaty ones you might try, also get the jelly noodle version if available. I had it during my first trip to Chengdu, and the textures are terrific.
One of my favorite finds would be the little mom-and-pop (and son) dumpling house (it’s literally an old home) known as Fuzi Shuijiao. I took a walk there my final morning in Chengdu and ate some chili oil wontons that I enjoyed. As I prepared to leave, mom and dad motioned me to stay, presenting me with jiaozi—water-boiled dumplings with a slightly different chili sauce. Seeing my confusion, another customer cut in with translation that it was a gift so that I was sure to try the only two items on the menu. Nice people, incredible atmosphere, and a fond way to say farewell to Chengdu.
These dough-based experiences don’t even include my bevy of breakfast noodles. More on that later.
Ma po tofu
As much as I love noodles and dumplings, my favorite food in the world remains ma po tofu. I cook it weekly. Last time to Chengdu, I tried a few versions (and even cooked one myself under guidance of a chef at a local restaurant!), including fly restaurant Ming Ting’s signature dish: pig brain ma po tofu. This time I made a return visit to Chen Mapo DouFu, said to be the first place to serve it. As long as there’s enough good quality doubanjiang, the dish is good, though Chen’s continued to underwhelm me a bit (meat is too crispy?)—and instead reinforced why I like my own version so much.
Much to my surprise, I loved the vegetarian version of ma po tofu I tried at The Temple House’s MI XUN Teahouse. With mushrooms substituting for the meat, this version was delicate but still with deep flavor of doubanjiang, along with a perfect spice level. Ma po tofu was but one dish I enjoyed as part of a delicious vegetarian lunch at MI XUN, which is open to hotel guests and the general public on the grounds of the stunning hotel property adjacent to the modern yet traditional Tai Koo Li shopping area.
You have to eat at least one hot pot meal while in Chengdu, and I chose to enjoy mine at Xiaolongkan Old Hot Pot. The atmosphere is alive with people checking off ingredient lists, dunking items in bubbling broths, dipping cooked foods in sesame oil-cooled sauces, and just having a good time while tackling the spicy, sweat-inducing (for many) food. My must-haves when hot-potting are tofu skin, tripe, lotus root, fatty pork slices, and spicy beef—because even the extra chili fails to make me sweat. Maybe next time.
Earlier I mentioned the fly restaurant Ming Ting, which I enjoyed last trip to Chengdu. Fly restaurants are basically bare-bone places that serve a variety of delicious food. This time I met up with a friend from Seattle at Yutian restaurant. While I’d recommend braving the crowds at Ming Ting over this place, I enjoyed their water-boiled pork and their signature spin on fuqi feipian, “husband and wife” offal slices in chili sauce.
Another night, I met my Lost Plate Food Tour friends at one branch of Renmin Shitang (People’s Public Restaurant) for classic Sichuan dishes. Highlights here included cumin ribs with potatoes and peanuts, mushroom dry pot, and an unusual grilled bread.
One more meal of interest was at Ying Garden. This place is a little hard to find, but once you make your way up a couple of flights of stairs in a non-descript building, you’ll find an interesting room for coffee or tea during the afternoons. Out the door is a gorgeous terrace, which I imagine must be a terrific place to take a meal when the weather is warmer, but on this night was remarkable for a walkway with sausage overhanging the entire path. At the other end is another room with some eclectic artwork, including calligraphy that reads “food must first be interesting to be good.” Of course, I had to sample some sausage, the apple one mellow, the spicy one having back of the mouth heat, and the Sichuan peppercorn one super-numbing. The restaurant also features some food from the Miao people of China, including an interesting suan tang (sour soup) made with potato.
A Day Trip to Leshan
Last time to Chengdu, I took an overnight trip to Chongqing. This time I wanted a day trip to an ancient town. Asking around, I learned that most of the better places were too far for a winter day trip. With a desired focus on food, Leshan turned out to be the top recommendation. Many people take the easy train ride to visit Leshan’s famed Giant Buddha, but since the statue was mostly covered for renovation, it made the food focus even easier.
Perhaps most popular in Leshan is the beef offal “hot pot” known as qiao jiao niu rou. With that in mind, I immediately took a taxi from the train station to Fang Fang Qiao Jiao Niu Rou. The workers were incredibly friendly, showing what they were cooking before shepherding me to their dining room directly across the street. Both the beef and broth were fantastic, with the bubbling hot soup especially welcome in the bone-chilling weather. I loved the wide variety of textures in the vast array of meat, made better when dipped in delicious chili flakes. Also spectacular was a side of mao xue (pork blood) as well as a plate of rice flour steamed beef (fenzhengrou).
That evening, I took a stroll through the Zhanggongqiao night market area, full of eateries for those willing to brave the cold. I stopped at a tianpi ya (sweet skin duck) stall to buy some bird, enjoying it at a nearby boboji restaurant where I devoured some chicken and vegetable skewers (sitting in spicy sauce) along with daofu nao—“tofu brain” that’s savory, a little spicy, and some might say “snotty.”
Shopping and Cooking
One of my major goals of this trip was to do some local food shopping and cooking, and that goal was achieved thanks to Mindy Tang of the Sanchuan Jiuwei Experimental Kitchen in the Wide and Narrow Alleys (Kuanzhai Xiangzi). The night before cooking, Mindy invited me to attend an 18-dish dinner feast to celebrate five talented apprentices pledging to work with a Sichuan master chef.
The next day, Mindy’s chef, Yang Wen Xue, took us shopping in a local food “arcade” to buy live fish, meat, vegetables, and more. Back at the school, I cooked three delicious dishes while under the chef’s watchful eye: boiled fish with pickled mustard greens (suan cai yu), water-boiled beef (shui zhu niu rou), and diced chicken fried with peanuts (gongbao ji ding). This was an experience I’ll remember for a lifetime.
And here’s a little video of me, being somewhat silly, completing my water-boiled beef dish:
Throughout my stay, I enjoyed any chance to check out a food market. My favorite was Supo. Here are some snapshots:
Kudos and appreciation to the Dorsett Grand Chengdu for graciously hosting my stay in Chengdu. I highly recommend this hotel as its super-convenient location, fine accommodations, and great pricing make a triumvirate of perfection. My deluxe king room was comfortable, with plenty of space, and when I wanted a cooler temperature than the thermostat allowed, a worker was quick to bring a portable air conditioner. Staff members are nice and eager to help, even in cases when language might be a barrier. I was thrilled that the hotel was across an alley from the entrance to a subway—a cheap and easy way to travel when the inexpensive taxis might get mired in traffic.
And then there are the Dorsett’s dining options. On the sixth floor, Fu Yue Xuan offers elegant Sichuan and Cantonese fare. As the cliché goes, some of the food was almost too pretty to eat.
As pretty as that food was, I was perfectly satisfied with the morning breakfast service at the second floor’s Yue Rong Café. If you’re booking a room, consider the additional fee for the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet which is sprawling and superb. My morning ritual included a sampling of small bits from the steamer table, one of several congees with all the stir-ins, fresh tofu pudding with toppings, and especially the cold dishes like marinated tripe, pig ear, etc. Next would be a visit to the noodle bar, where the noodle chef knew I liked it hot, sometimes serving me a potato starch noodle or a rice noodle soup, though typically I ordered wheat noodles. I’d customize my noodle bowl with bamboo, pork, preserved vegetables, and other toppings. After this, I’d finish with some fresh fruit and perhaps a cup of coffee for a (warm) jump-start to getting outside in the cold winter air to explore Chengdu.
I left Chengdu feeling the same way I felt in 2016: enamored with the city and wondering when I could come back. Until that hopeful day, I leave you with an image similar to the one with which I started my first report: pandas in favorite positions, pursuing their passion of eating in Chengdu.