Restaurant: Chengdu Taste
Location: 828 W Valley Blvd. Alhambra, CA 91803. (626) 588-2284
Date: October 2, 2013 and October 17, 2016, April 21, 2017 and August 31, 2018
Cuisine: Szechuan Chinese
Rating: Face Numbing!
Chengdu Taste, is a Chengdu style Szechuan restaurant, it’s the first to feature this regional cuisine that Jonathan Gold recently raved about and still one of the best.
Because even on a Wednesday night there are about 20-30 people waiting for tables. Our big party even had a reservation, but they still made us wait for 45 minutes. Plus — the horrors — they wouldn’t allow us to open our wines. They don’t have a liquor license and they succumbed to the common misconception that us opening our own could get them in trouble — which it won’t.
Anyway, after much debate about the ordering the food began to pour out (in rapid succession unfortunately, often multiple dishes at once):
Diced Rabbit with younger sister’s secret recipe. The tangy spicy flavor on this was nice, but the rabbit has been diced (as promised) into tiny morsels bone and all. Each bit is sharp and requires nibbling at to get fragments of meat out of the spiky little bones.
Fish and tofu pudding in spicy sauce. There are mild boiled filets of fish and generous cubes of soft tofu under all that pepper. The “sauce” is nearly liquid, almost solid chili oil with a sea of peanuts, heavy facing pepper, and tons of little Szechwan peppercorns. They included the real deal Szechwan Peppercorn which has only been allowed in the US for about 7-8 years (for strange political or environmental reasons). Wow did it have an “impressive” breath and depth of hotness. I mean serious existential hotness of a new type. Not an inedible heat (which I’ve had in China), but this weird numbing effect that is a feature of the genuine Szechwan peppercorn (the little brown black pepper-like balls floating in the dish). Woah!
The contents in a bowl.
Vegetable hot pot. This was a similar dish, but without all the peppercorns it was hot, but not as numbing. It also had a surprisingly nice array of vegetables in there, particularly the potato and lotus root. It was many people’s favorite dish.
NOTE: In October 2016 I had this dish again and it was fabulous with very tender and flavorful lamb bits.
Boiled Fish with green peppers. This is the house signature dish, and it was on nearly every table. It’s similar filets of white fish boiled in a “broth” of oil and peppercorns. This has an interesting vegetable herbaceous heat. In some ways a mild and pleasant flavor, but with a broad numbing quality.
Numb taste wontons. Tasty little pork wontons in a searing chili oil. My first one, looking as it did like above was very tasty. But after they soaked up the chili oil they lost their flavor behind all that spice.
Duck tongues. This still fry with onions and peppers consists entirely of duck tongues. Yes, every one of those little meaty things is an individual bird tongue. Pretty tasty actually, although the texture was very rubbery (as I’m sure duck tongue always is).
Eggplant in garlic sauce. An excellent, and very garlicky, version of this dish. The intense sauce was amazing.
Kung Pao shrimp. Classic.
Griddle (dry hot pot) chicken (8/31/18). Really nice flavor and spice. Had the bones, but of course.
Grandmother’s beef with preserved chilies (8/31/18). This was the first time I’ve had this style of dish. It had a tangy/spicy thing, quite sour actually. Very soft generous slices of beef and crunchy cucumber. Really interesting and delicious, although the sour quality might be weird to some westerners.
Tan Tan Noodles. This classic of Szechwan cuisine features noodles, pork, sesame, peanuts, green onion.
You mix it up. And while it doesn’t look lovely, it tasted great, with a really wonderful sesame nut flavor, some noodles, and a bit of sweetness (some spice too — of course). One of our favorites.
Overall, Chengu Taste offered up great authentic fare. The above feast was a mere $30 per person with tax and tip. The service was nice, but there were several practical issues: 1) long wait 2) no wine allowed 3) they brought everything out too fast. This significantly marred the experience (particularly the wine and rapid delivery). We had brought some great sweet wines and they would have calmed the inferno. Plus, by delivering 4-5 dishes at once, the enormous heat of some of them (fish and tofu hot pot!) swamped out the flavors of others (the peppercorn fish). So I’d like to go back if we can arrange for them to deal with those problems.
Still, a delicious and unusual meal, and it was interesting and fantastic to get such a bracing introduction to real Szechwan pepper (I’ve had it before, but not in this quantity). The face numbing effect was dramatic and the flavor complex. The only problem is that the spice kept me up half the night!
October 2016 recap. 3 years and a LOT of Szechuan later I still think Chengdu is a great place. If anything the ingredients seemed to improve. It didn’t feel nearly as hot — I mean it was still hot — but not mind warping. I think that’s just me having “acclimated” to Szechuan food. I have it a lot. I cook it at home! But the flavors were great. Maybe not quite as complex as Szechuan Impressions, but I didn’t get CRS afterward (with SI gives me). The menu is improved and has pictures. There was no wait at lunch although it was reasonably crowded. If you want serious Szechuan classically and well executed you could do far far worse that Chengdu Taste. In fact, it’s pretty darn great.