When I took my little stroll down memory lane before we left for Chengdu I predicted we'd find that 'hole-in-the-wall restaurants with one wok and two tables are a thing of the past.' That's sort of the case; outside of the odd street food vendor there aren't many two-table operations anymore.
But I'm happy -- no, make that gleeful -- to report that the type of one-guy-in-the-kitchen eatery where we ate most of our dinners back in 1985 is still very much alive in spirit. It's just that now, instead a garage-like hovel it occupies a proper little room. Instead of one or two tables there may be five or six. And there's usually a wall rather than merely a meter of floor space separating cooking space from diner.
To find these places you must leave the major four-to-eight lane thoroughfares and ring roads. You need to poke around in smaller lanes, car-free alleys, and tight passageways that might look like they're closed to non-residents (they're not - or if they are, you'll be told so).
The neighborhoods around universities and colleges (of which Chengdu has quite a few) are particularly good hunting ground for rustic jiachang cai (home-style dishes). These joints aren't all created equal, of course, but you'll rarely be served anything worse than 'pretty good'. Quite often what you eat will be revelatory, especially if the only Sichuan dishes you've eaten have been prepared in a restaurant outside of Asia.
We stumbled across this little gem near the Sichuan Music Conservatory. It's a wonderful area in which to wander, still cut through with winding lanes and old-style lowrises -- from which occasionally drift the wail of a sax or the tinkle of piano keys -- and still very much a neighborhood in spite of many newish highrise complexes. Though it was almost 2:30pm, well past lunchtime, the owner happily ushered us to a table.
We ordered the sort of rustic-bordering-on-basic Sichuanese dishes that restaurants overseas always seem to muck up with overkill, and not a one disappointed.Bansan si ('cold three threads') -- a tangle of seeded cucumber and carrot shreds and bean thread noodles all tossed with chopped cilantro and peanuts in a spicy sweet-tart sauce -- was a refreshing teaser, a salad on steroids.
And yuxiang roupian ('fish-fragrance' meat slices), a dish that's long been an obsession of Dave's -- for good reason, when prepared as well as this version was. As much vegetable as meat (that's a good thing, in our book), it played crunchy stem lettuce and cloud ear shreds off chewy pork batons to wonderful textural effect. Everything was bathed in a light yet breathtakingly spicy and vinegar-tart sauce.
A misleadingly dull-sounding (to the Chinese pickle novice, anyway) suancai roupian (sour vegetable and meat pieces) fairly jumped off the plate with its tongue-prickling pickled mustard green. the sourness of the suancai balancing the pork's richness.
We finished with the most mundane of soups: fanqie jidan tang (tomato and egg soup), to which we requested that some green cabbage be added. The broth was pitch-perfect -- vegetal, light, barely there, as it should be, because this kind of soup is meant to cleanse the palate of a meal's meaty richness rather than dazzle in its own right.
(China is a generally an amazingly cheap place to eat so we haven't been highlighting prices in these Chengdu posts. But I can't resist sharing that this meal -- which, like every meal that we ate most every place, was very generous in portion size -- came to a grand total of CNY 27. That's about 4 US dollars.)
Before we left the restaurant Dave asked to photograph the cook and the hands that made this memorable repast. He was confused at first, then obviously flattered that Dave had lovingly photographed every single dish.
'Your food was beautiful, delicious!' I tried to explain. He smiled, just a little. Then, as we were walking halfway up the street, he shouted 'Xia ci zai lai!' Come again!