Chengdu Taste Coming to a City Near You? We Ask the Owners
When it’s silent for too long on this end, you know it means Fongchong and I have been traveling or, in this case, spending our summer in Northeast Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley, America’s most progressive Chinese enclave. Without a kitchen while we play in the sun, hang with dear old friends, and Fongchong goes to summer school, we use the time off from cooking Sichuan to eat other people’s Sichuan cooking and get newly inspired.
Last summer we fell in love with Alhambra’s Chengdu Taste, which I posted about more than once. But we were not the only ones. Since then, many top food critics, following Jonathan Gold’s lead, have praised it, even calling it America’s best Sichuan restaurant. After a second summer of indulging and comparing to other famed Sichuan restaurants, both homegrown like Chengdu Taste and imported direct from Chengdu like Chuan’s, we have to agree.
As an aside, Chuan’s is the first U.S. outpost of the wildly successful Sichuan dining chain Ba Guo Bu Yi. I’ve eaten at the flagship in Chengdu many times, and the version here is smaller but similar: solid, unfussy Sichuan food in a beautiful, Chinese folk-art setting with a folk-opera “face-changing” show most nights. I didn’t see Chuan’s face-changing (or more literally, mask-changing) show, but if it’s half as good as those you see in Chengdu, it would add to the many reasons that this restaurant is worth the drive from inner Los Angeles to Temple City for a special night out.
This summer in Los Angeles we got the added delight of dining with the owners of Chengdu Taste, founder Tony Xu and his business partner, Sean Xie. Over items from the secret menu (I didn’t even know they had one!), we actually got to ask about their secrets. Well, maybe not their secrets—I didn’t have the nerve to ask for a recipe—but we got to ask real questions about running a real Sichuan restaurant in America.
“Why have they succeeded,” I wanted to know, “when so many others have failed? [With the exception of Peter Chang on the East Coast.] Not only in creating a red-hot restaurant (pun intended) serving authentic Chinese food, but in opening several others in a short three years and making a lasting mark?”
I expected them to answer, Because our food is the best, superior to all that came before.
But no. Instead, Xu said, “Standardization. We cook only traditional Sichuan dishes following traditional Sichuan recipes, and I have standardized the process so that every dish tastes the same every time and across every restaurant we open.”
I tried to protest that I too cook traditional Sichuan dishes following traditional Sichuan recipes, and mine, while damn good, haven’t inspired legions of diners and critics alike to swoon and cheer.
He wouldn’t hear it. “We just cook classic Sichuan, like the food I ate in Chengdu when I was a child and young man. Some of these dishes—such as the monstrous, splayed-and-fried lion fish from the secret menu—aren’t even cooked by chefs in Sichuan anymore. The food in Chengdu continues to evolve, but we just cook the classics.”
Xie added that Xu treats his staff like family and has almost no turnover—which is highly unlike the American-Chinese restaurant scene, where itinerant cooks come and go, plugging-and-playing the same dishes from one take-out resto to the next. Xu has a Sichuan Master Chef (a government-bestowed title for elite chefs), and the two of them train all other chefs. Some of those chefs then take off and do their own thing, but he doesn’t worry too much about that. The more the better to spread the love of Sichuan food, he says. But most stay with him, the loyalty enabling the cooking required at that level and in that many locations.
Now, granted, I’ve put a few English words in Xu’s mouth, as he speaks best in Mandarin, and Fongchong is not yet quite confident enough in her interview skills to question adults in her native Chinese (someday soon!). But that is the essence of what he said. And anyway, Sean Xie also grew up in Chengdu, and after getting a degree at USC, is more than fluent in American language and culture, so he did most of the talking for the growing Chengdu Taste empire.
In 2013, when Chengdu Taste opened and Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Gold called it one of the best restaurants in L.A., Xu had to Google Gold to see who he was and what it meant. He never envisioned the ensuing four-hour waits for a table—or the craziness of people paying others to stand in the line for them.
But he knew an opportunity when he saw one. As an immigrant from Sichuan who had run restaurants in Chengdu, he had worked his way up in L.A. from tour guide for visiting Chinese to a restaurant worker and eventually to a manager at Panda Restaurant Group, Inc., of Panda Express fame. That’s where he learned standardization.
You have got to love the irony of mass-market American-Chinese food enabling Tony Xu to open the most authentic Sichuan restaurant in America and make a success of it. After the original Alhambra location, he quickly opened spots ever deeper into the upscale, urbane Chinese cities of the SGV, in Rosemead and Rowland Heights. He also ventured off into a noodle concept with a Sichuan/Chongqing noodle house called Mian in the city of San Gabriel. Once again he struck gold, in my opinion (and Gold’s), with noodles that taste like so many I’ve eaten in Chengdu. (More on that in a future post.)
In fall 2015, Xu and Xie opened a Chengdu Taste in Las Vegas, going with the safe bet of a Chinatown location. But in early 2016, they opened an outlet in Asian-majority—but not highly Chinese—Honolulu. Xu said the Japanese in Honolulu eat something called mapo tofu, but theirs is sweet and they were shocked to find out that the Chinese do too, and that it’s quite spicy and numbing.
Xu and Xie get a little closer to a diverse, mainstream American neighborhood with every new place they open. They are eyeing Seattle and Portland, maybe Houston or Dallas. I tried to convince them the average American will love their food. But I’m a little biased. They are savvy, these two, and not about to push it too fast. They know they can deliver the food—standardization, staff loyalty—but they also have to be sure that enough Americans are ready for that food.
I see their dilemma. Fongchong and I also dined this summer at Lao Sze Chuan, a new L.A. outpost of Chicago’s most celebrated Chinese restaurant. It’s located next to a luxury mall in non-Chinese-majority Glendale. We liked it alright. But something was amiss. It tasted like real Sichuan food, but it was kind of flat.
Then we finally realized why. It had no Sichuan pepper. It was missing the ma from mala—ma meaning the numbing taste of Sichuan pepper and la meaning the spicy hot of chili pepper—which defines the taste of real Sichuan food. I’m sure there’s mala to be found on Lao Sze Chuan’s menu, but at Chengdu Taste you don’t have to go looking for it. Dishes that would be mala in Chengdu are mala at Chengdu Taste. There’s no bowing to the non-Sichuan palate—which is why it’s so dang great.
Is mainstream America ready for that? Will Chengdu Taste be in the right places at the right times and finally spread real Sichuan food across the country? I’m optimistic, but then again, just a couple years ago a restaurant opened in Nashville serving some traditional Sichuan dishes made traditionally. I rushed to rejoice in our local daily, and the restaurant promptly reverted to American-Chinese, Cantonese and defanged Sichuan. The owner told me that the community—especially the local Taiwanese Chinese—complained that they couldn’t stomach the mala.
So bigger cities than mine, and maybe yours, will be the first to get the honor. In the meantime though, I’ll be attempting to recreate Chengdu Taste’s second-most popular dish: bobo chicken. It’s similar to other Sichuanese cold chicken dishes in red oil, as I’ve explored before. But this take on bo bo chicken—seen everywhere in Chengdu—presents the chicken bits and veggie slices on skewers, the better to easily retrieve them from the addictive red-oil broth and devour. Stay tuned for the recipe.