Beyond Fiery Spices at Chengdu Taste

Sliced fish with tofu pudding | Photo by Clarissa Wei
It's the hottest new thing in town -- literally.

Arrive at 7 p.m. on a weekday and you'll barely snag a table. Come here on the weekends during dinner hours and you'll definitely have to wait. The popularity of the restaurant is impressive considering that they've only been open for a month. You won't be rubbing elbows with the regular L.A. crowd though -- at least not yet. The majority of the patrons are Sichuan natives: young, recently immigrated yuppies who have somehow caught wind of the restaurant from their social networks. It's a good sign.

Chengdu Taste is one of the newer Chinese restaurants on Valley Boulevard. Located in Alhambra in the former Golden Shanghai space, it's an homage to Sichuan food, a subset of Chinese cooking that many in the area have already adopted, marketed, and sold. But here, the food is especially piquant and people have taken notice.

"I want my restaurant to be representative of the Sichuan way of life," owner and chef Tony Xu said in Mandarin. "It's not just about having good food. It's about having delicious, authentic food that properly reflects the culture and tastes of Chengdu."

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan Province in China -- an area known for its fiery, tongue-numbing cuisine. In 2011, it became the first Asian city to be listed as a "City of Gastronomy" -- an honor only granted to places with both strong gastronomic and traditional culinary practices.

Tony Xu | Photo by Amparo Rios

A Chengdu native, Xu always had a long-held fascination with the food of his people. He apprenticed under local chefs back home and owned a Sichuan-style restaurant in China before he moved to Los Angeles in 2005. After various Chinese restaurant stints including one with Panda Restaurant Group, Xu partnered up with his friends and opened the doors to Chengdu Taste on June 25.

The Restaurant

Appropriately adorned with a scattering of Sichuan opera masks on one of its walls, the eatery is remarkably modern in comparison to its neighboring counterparts.

Sichuan 'bianlian' opera masks | Photo by Nick Yee

"I was really inspired by Hai Di Lao, a famous hot pot chain from Sichuan," Xu said. "They're extremely customer and service-oriented and I wanted my restaurant to reflect that." Hai Di Lao is known for its unusually high level of service -- sometimes even offering customers manicures and dances during an expected wait. But though Chengdu Taste offers none of the above, they do have a high caliber of service that's rare in Chinese eateries. Servers are attentive and sufficiently bilingual.

"We're all friends at this restaurant," Xu said. "That really helps foster a sense of community and warmth." Xu also maintains a social media presence on Twitter and Weibo and uses the platforms as a means to get feedback from the public.

The Cuisine

Sichuan cuisine is one of four great Chinese cooking traditions, and is known for being tongue-numbingly spicy. While neighboring provinces such as Hunan are also known for having a wide repertoire of fiery foods, Sichuan has a distinct ingredient: the peppercorn, or huajiao (花椒). It's a small spice that will literally numb your tongue.

Xu devotes a lot of his attention into finding quality peppercorns. "Sichuan peppercorns are typically grown and harvested in Hanyuan, a region in Sichuan," he explained. "We have a mix of peppercorns directly imported from Hanyuan and the best we could find in the States."


Peppercorn differences | Photo by paul goyette/ Flickr

According to Xu, peppercorns go for roughly $10 for five grams. How does one distinguish a good peppercorn from a rotten one? "Whether or not it leaves a bitter aftertaste," Xu explained.

An influence of its geographic location in central China, Sichuan food also capitalizes on domestic animals, and fresh water fish. There is no ocean seafood. "We like to use pig, lamb, beef and all of their parts like the stomach and tongue," Xu said. "Nothing goes to waste. We eat the entire animal."

Xu used the Chinese word xiang (香) -- which means fragrant -- to describe the cuisine of his hometown. Three main different types of spices are used in Sichuanese cuisine: black pepper, chili peppers, and peppercorns. "But it's not just food loaded with chilies," he said. "There are so many different flavors in Chengdu cooking. We have spiciness in the form of red chilies and green chilies, then there's garlic-based dishes and sour ones."

As one of the most intricate and complicated sub-cuisines within China, there are 20 different types of flavor profiles in Sichuan cooking which includes dry, spicy, sour, garlicky, and sweet. "Yicaiyige baicaibaiwei (一菜一格, 百菜百味)," Xu said, referencing a traditional Sichuan saying. The meaning: "Each dish has its own individual style; a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors."

The Food

The menu was developed via a collaboration between Xu and his Chengdu-born chef. "We'll take a dish, make 20 versions of it and pick the best one," Xu said. A few dishes take a painstakingly long amount of time to create . The tea-smoked flavor duck, for example, requires seven days of prep work and there's an entire section of the menu that can only be accessed if you order beforehand. "We don't cut corners here. Chinese food isn't fast food," said Xu.

Here's a breakdown of some of their more popular dishes:

Wontons | Photo by Clarissa WeiWonton with Red Chili Sauce ($5.99)
The wontons, stuffed with ground pork, are served over a bed of light chili oil and topped with a generous heaping of scallions.

Tan tan noodles | Photo by Clarissa Wei
Sichuan Tan Tan Noodle ($5.99)
More commonly known as dan dan noodles (擔擔麵), this dish is an eclectic array of various peanuts, sesame seeds, sesame sauce, and ground pork over a thin bed of red chili oil. Be sure to give the noodles a thorough mixing before serving. It's a good blend of creamy peanut and chili oil, done so well that the noodles aren't at all sticky and go down smoothly.

Mung bean | Photo by Clarissa WeiSichuan Style Mung Bean Jelly with Chili Sauce ($4.99)
Ask the waiter for a recommended appetizer and he'll more than likely come up with this. Made with mung bean jelly, these cellophane-like noodles are the perfect medium for soaking up the blood-red pool of chili oil. The fresh cut peppers on top add an extra kick.

Toothpick Beef | Photo by Clarissa WeiToothpick Beef ($13.99)
The toothpicks are inserted solely for aesthetic reasons. "I wanted to create a dish no one else had," Xu admitted. This dish comes in both beef and mutton form and both proteins are mindfully decorated with a kick of cumin.


Sliced Fish | Photo by Clarissa WeiSliced Fish with Tofu Pudding in Hot Sauce ($10.99)
Sichuan virgins beware. This dish can be intimidating. It's flaky white fish (tilapia according to a waiter) boiled in a deep red broth of peppercorns and chilies. Accompanying the fish is a heap of douhua (豆花), or soft tofu. Scoop this over a bowl of hot white rice, mind your tongue, and maybe have a glass of water of two at the ready. Remember, the peppercorns can create a numbing sensation.

Water Boiled Fish | Photo by Clarissa WeiBoiled Sliced Fish in Hot Sauce ($9.99)
Similar to the previous dish, this one is just white fish in chili oil minus the soft tofu pudding. On the bottom sits a medley of Napa cabbage and soy bean sprouts.

Garlic Noodles | Photo by Clarissa WeiCold Noodle with Garlic Sauce ($5.99)
The garlic noodles are pretty self-explanatory and are one of their more popular noodle dishes. Don't be too intimated by the dark, red chilies. They add nicely to the minced garlic without being overwhelming spicy.

Duck with buns | Photo by Clarissa WeiHouse Special Tea Flavored Duck ($14.99)
Called zhengcha duck (樟茶鸭) in Chinese, this is a classic Sichuan dish that's popular at banquets. You can smell fragrant aroma of the poultry from a foot away. With prep work, this dish takes seven days to make and the restaurant only has a limited amount per day. It's prepared by marinating the duck in a blend of pepper, ginger, garlic, Chinese wine, and salt and then smoked over black tea leaves and camphor twigs. Lastly it's deep-fried in vegetable oil for the crisp texture.

Chicken | Photo by Clarissa WeiSauteed Pepper Chicken ($11.99)
This was a rather tough dish to manage. There's a lot of bones in each bite but it's a nice alternative for the people who cannot take spicy food.

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Address
Cheng Du Taste
828 W Valley Road
Alhambra, CA 91803


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About the Author

I'm the Assistant Producer of New Media at KCET and a foodist with a knack for Chinese cuisine. Los Angeles native and avid night hiker.
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