L.A.’s Chengdu Taste Spreads the Sichuan Love


Chengdu Taste's Tengjiaoyu

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.

Chuans restaurant interior
Chuan’s in the SGV: Go for the ambiance, stay for the food

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.”

Chengdu Taste's secret menu Bandit Chicken
Bandit Chicken from Chengdu Taste’s secret menu. Stewed chicken with herbal spices and Chinese yams.

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.

Chengdu Taste's Frog Dry Pot
It’s no secret that we love dry pot. And frog.

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.

Chengdu Taste Alhambra with a line out the door
Fong Chong and I in line at the original, Alhambra location

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.)

Chengdu Taste Rosemead
The Rosemead location of Chengdu Taste. We prefer to eat lunch late in the afternoon to avoid the lines and crowds—and see the staff meal.

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.

Chengdu Taste's Bo Bo Chicken

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for heritage Sichuan ingredients and Chinese pantry essentials.

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  1. YEA !!! Glad you are back. I am just having my morning coffee and my eyes LIT UP!!! Been following you for about 4 months now…. cooking all I can and loving it. I am near Rochester, NY – with a few exceptions the Asian cuisine armpit of Up-state. :>))) BUT, we now have a Sichuan place that is ok, even thought the owners are from Qingdao and it is called Tsingdao.. DUH !! (Chef is from Sichuan,)

    1. Thanks, Bill! It’s nice to be missed. New recipes coming soon.

      I hope you can hold on to your Sichuan chef!

  2. Welcome back! I have missed the posts. Glad you had a good time in SGV!

    This was a really interesting article. It is good to see such successful restaurateurs producing good Sichuan food. Next time I am in Las Vegas, I will definitely go to Chengdu Taste!

    By the way, the “teng jiao yu” looks incredibly delicious! Tài málà le! I can’t wait to try it.

    Take care!

    1. Thanks so much! And, yes, the teng jiao yu—fish in Sichuan pepper oil—is insanely numbing and delicious. It’s another recipe I hope to crack.

      Report back if you make it to the Vegas location.

  3. Hi Taylor, just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your “Mala project” – and you definitely resparked my interest for Sichuan style cooking. Unfortunately we don’t have any good Sichuan style restaurants in this part of Germany, hence your recipes are worth a fortune if you want to create your own authentic Sichuan dishes. Keep up the good work! Cheers L.

    1. Aw, thanks, Leif. I love to hear that and imagine you cooking these dishes in a kitchen far far away. I’m happy I can bring a little Sichuan to your life.

  4. We have a lot of restaurants in Columbus (Ohio) offering Sichuan food and they do use Sichuan peppercorns – especially if you are with Chinese speakers or assure them you want mala/Chinese style.
    If you ever come to Columbus we’d love to show you around and get your opinion of them. Also if you use Instagram I love following Chengdu food tours.

    1. Good to know, Bethia! Thanks for the kind offer. I’m sure there are many good Sichuan restaurants in areas with adventurous eaters.

  5. I hope really authentic food spreads whether it be Sichuan or other cuisines. Here in Cincy (Cincinnati, OH) we have Sichuan Chili and Sichuan Bistro. Sichuan Chili, in particular, I think is super close with their authentic menu & American menu – but I do think they have an issue with standardization, sometimes they’re dumplings in chili oil are amazing and others they fall flat. Then again though, I’ve never been to Chengdu so what do I know about authenticity 😛 So if you’re ever around this way, check it out and give an informed take on it! Disclaimer: I have no relationship with the restaurant, I’m just a big foodie that loves trying new dishes and cuisines.

    1. I’m starting to think Ohio is a Sichuan hotspot (see above). 🙂 There’s something a little presumptuous about naming any restaurant the best of any kind. I mean, none of us have eaten at every Sichuan restaurant in the country. But I think their real brilliance is in being able to replicate it. Thanks for writing!

  6. I love your blog and am addicted to your recipes! I’ve been cooking them regularly. Question – do you ever use tapioca flour instead of cornstarch for thickening?

    1. Thanks so much, Laura! I have used other starches, and I think most would work. You might need a different amount using tapioca, but I generally add the starch slurry slowly at the end anyway, and with that method you can figure out how much you need as you go.

      I’m always open to feedback too, if you find that a recipe has any correctable flaws. Thanks for writing!

  7. Greetings Taylor,

    Love your blog and have made been very happy with the results!! You give wonderful instructions and back round knowledge of the recipes.

    My question is regarding finding an online Chinese products store in California. I have been buying from PosharpStore.com but, they don’t have a lot of the products you use and they are way out on the East coast.

    Thank you in advance for your help and warmest Aloha from Hawaii!!

    1. Aloha, Tony! Thanks so much for the kind words. Have you been to Chengdu Taste there yet?

      I’m sorry to hear you haven’t been finding things at Posharp lately. That’s where I turn when I can’t find things locally. What don’t they have? I have never found a better online store. I just checked 99 Ranch’s online store again and they don’t seem to offer any Sichuan-made products there–only a few Sichuan ingredients made in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Great Wall Supermarket’s site doesn’t seem to be working at all, though they carry a lot of Sichuan products in their stores. At least one of the managers at Posharp is from Sichuan, so they usually have what I need. But their shipping charge is high, I know.

  8. Aloha Taylor,

    Thanks plenty for your quick response. I wanted to try to make your recipe for Dan Dan Noodles and could not find Zhenjiang Vinegar or Tian Mian Jiang at Posharp. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place in the store? It seems I have looked at almost EVERY item in that store at one time or another but just maybe I have not looked well enough for these two products.

    It is interesting that there is not a good online store on the West Coast yea?

    I have a friend here from the Chengdu region and we will be cooking today together!!! Can’t wait for more knowledge later today!!!!!

    Again, thanks for your help and wonderful recipes!!!!!!

    Warmest aloha,

    1. Tony, the tian mian is often translated as sweet bean paste. Here is one I have used: http://www.posharpstore.com/en/yidayuan-sichuan-sweet-bean-paste-123-oz
      This is actually a fermented wheat paste (tian mian), not a sweet bean paste as described, but in any case they are interchangeable.
      Zhenjiang vinegar is also called Chinkiang vinegar. I would think you could find it in any Asian grocery in Honolulu. But here is a solid brand sold at Posharp: http://www.posharpstore.com/en/gold-plum-chinkiang-vinegar-186-fl-oz
      Jealous of your cooking with a Chengdu friend! Enjoy!