We arrived in Chengdu in the early evening and were picked up from the airport by H’s cousin. After a whistle-stop tour of hotels, he suggested dinner. A brief phone call later and we were given a booking in at one of the most renowned restaurants in Chengdu at 8pm on New Year’s Eve. After years of rejection by London’s maître d’s for any time between seven and nine on a random Wednesday night, I was suitably impressed..
The Sichuan hot pot at Shu Jiu Xiang comes in three strengths: Bland, Medium and Super Spicy. I was a bit disappointed when he ordered bland until I found out that it meant spicy without being painful.
I tried Medium elsewhere and it was what I would call “That’s enough Spicy for today thank you”. No one would serve a foreigner Super Spicy…
Wanting to maintain a reasonable first impression with our hosts I raised no objection when they ordered eel, goose intestine, two types of delicate tripe, shrimp dumplings, bamboo and tofu skin. Despite my initial concern about eel, it was delicious and delicate, bearing no resemblance to the jellied mess that used to be popular in London.
New Year’s Day
Wanting to get my monies worth I ate breakfast at the hotel. After the joys of the previous night a selection of bland noodles and warm orange juice didn’t really get the taste buds going.
The twelve tiny plates were delicious and barely scratched the surface of the variety of dishes on offer, but the meal was frustrating due to the number of people in the restaurant who stopped eating and swivelled round in their chairs to intensely watch and comment on the foreign chap eating. I’d hoped Chengdu would be a little more cosmopolitan that that.
Just outside was a guokui joint. These are hunks of marinated pork and rind sliced off into a fresh bun – delicious and not too spicy, but fatty enough that I couldn’t eat them regularly.
A busy afternoon house hunting in Chengdu’s new town gave us the appetite to try Mr Han’s Bun Shop (Han Baozi). Despite being one of Chengdu’s oldest and most respected snack restaurants, I really wasn’t that impressed. It’s possible they’ve grown a little too used to their success as everything just felt a little slap-dash. The buns were badly made, the sauces nothing special and the side dishes somewhat flavourless.
After a dirty breakfast of spicy intestines and a trip to the supermarket to pick up a generous supply of dried meats and snacks, we stopped at the nearby Lao Zi Hao fried egg noodle shop.
This is the sort of restaurant I love in China. A friendly old man and his exceptionally tall and exceptionally loud voiced son run it with passion. They’re good at their job and pour their heart into every noodle dish.
Once again, we had the choice between bland, medium or spicy, this time braving medium. This is the only choice a customer gets – everything else comes to the shop’s specifications, because they know it is perfection.
Noodles in an amazing tomato broth, topped with a fried egg – a side dish of pickled cabbage to cut through the grease and the noodle water soup. I’m not sure there’s anything else on the menu – certainly everyone we could see was enjoying the same egg and tomato noodle dish. The restaurant is a local institution and the clientele reflects that.
Dinner that evening was in a golf club, where I met the rest of H’s family and thought it best not to explain why I was limping. The food and service were exquisite – endless Chinese dishes were prepared with a European twist: fois gras dumplings, bok choi and truffle, duck Scotch egg, so many it was hard to not appear greedy, despite their protestations that we eat more.
Our last day in Chengdu was a whirlwind of more food…
Breakfast at Zhong Shuijiao. Mr Zhong’s Dumplings was another snack shop that was perfectly good but I preferred Mr Long’s more savoury selection.
Lunch at Red Apricot (Hong Xing). The menu we chose was a little eclectic – eel noodles, pea & peanut risotto, unidentified greens and some thankfully plain boiled rice. The real problem with the restaurant was that a boisterous wedding took up over half the restaurant, including a particularly out-of-tune wedding singer. I’m guessing it was an enthusiastic family member, as anyone else would have been politely asked to leave the stage.
Knowing we were eating out again in the evening, we walked round the Kuanzhai Alleys. These alternating narrow and wide alleys been rebuilt recently and now house a number of artists, including painters and fashion designers. Rather like 798 District in Beijing, I fear it has lost its roots somewhat as where there were once up and coming young artists, it’s now home to more established organisations.
Dinner at Three Ears (San Zhi Er). A more local hot pot restaurant, this was a brave move a few hours before being stuck on a flight with few toilets. Maybe I was tired at this point, maybe I was full or maybe it was the group next to us spitting phlegm on the floor, but this place just annoyed me.
Overall, for a lover of spicy food that offers a range and depth of flavours, Chengdu is a definite foodie destination. Any other Chengdu eating recommendations would be much appreciated!
I forgot to take a photo after being distracted by the delicious food, so the hot pot image is from the excellent Eat Drink Chengdu blog. I wish I’d found it before leaving the area as they do guided tours of Chengdu’s snacks.