Our favorite was eaten not at one of the restaurant listed at the bottom of the article, but at a classic jiachang cai (home-style dishes) eatery in Chengdu's not unpleasantly yuppy-ish Yulin District where one extremely capable young woman rules the kitchen.
It sits near the end of a narrow alley lined with poorly kept brick houses. Not your typical Yulin neighborhood, and I suspect that few of the district's fashionably dressed residents would ever think to dine here (or to walk down this alley, for that matter). But what this restaurant and its surrounds lack in style they more than make up for with their undeniable sense of place.
Here you know you're in Chengdu -- not in Shanghai or Beijing or Guangzhou, or even in Chongqing, but in Chengdu, Sichuan.
We may have gawped when we saw the woman in cook's white working the wok. Female cooks -- especially one as young as this one is -- at restaurants like this are a rare sight. In fact street food vendors aside, I don't believe we saw another woman cook our entire time in Sichuan.
We'd turned down this alley with full stomachs so we weren't in the market for a meal, but the confidence with which this young woman wielded her spatula, combined with the tantalizing aromas swirling about the patch of pavement in front of her stove and the gorgeous dishes she turned, one after the other, out of her wok convinced us to return.
Of course, when we arrived the next day for lunch everyone in the alley recognized us. After we'd ordered and Dave had wandered off with his camera a small crowd pushed in around me. A typically Chinese-style interrogation ensued:
Where are you from?
How long have you been in Chengdu? How long will you stay?
What hotel are you staying in? How much does it cost for one night?
Where do you live? What do you do there? How much do you earn a year?
Is he your husband? What's his job? How much does he earn a year?
How much does a plane ticket from America to China cost? How many hours on the plane?
Ni pa la ma? (Literally, 'Are you afraid of spicy-ness?')
How long have you been married?
How old are you? How many children do you have? Oh, that's a shame, you have no children yet.
And there was information unsolicited but given:
She's an excellent cook. The best cook around here.
She's 27. She's not married. Not even a boyfriend!
When our food began arriving an elderly lady standing at my elbow abruptly dispersed the crowd, and everyone wandered back to their lunches and cups of tea, their knitting, mahjong, dominoes, and soap operas.
In addition to the mapo dofu, which featured a fiery, funky fermented chili bean paste-heavy sauce, cubes of silky soft bean curd, and a thick dusting of ground Sichuan peppercorn, we ate a simple but brilliant dish that we'd watched the young cook prepare the day before: a tangle of thinly sliced, creamy textured eggplant, mild fresh green chili, and dried red chilies, all smoky from the wok.
We also ordered potatoes prepared typically Chinese-style -- sliced into matchsticks and fried just long enough to lose their starch but not their crunch. From the selection of fresh vegetables displayed in baskets by the stove we chose spinach, which was flash-fried with garlic and Sichuan peppercorns.
The meal was so delicious we returned another day for dinner: pleasingly vinegary yuxiang rousi, the cook's own version of lazi jiding (chicken with chilies), in which she substituted fresh green chilies, red pepper, and celery for the dish's usual mound of whole dried chilies,
and liangban kugua (bittermelon 'salad'), crisp-tender slices of blanched bitter melon dressed with nothing more than sesame oil and salt and crowned with slices of wok-softened red pepper. We're usually on the fence when it comes to bitter melon, but this dish boasted a lovely balance of saltiness, sweetness, and gentle bitterness.
After dinner the cook's father, curious to have a look at these waiguo ren who'd been making such a big deal of his daughter's food, came out to make our acquaintance. He opened the restaurant about a decade ago and handed over the spatula to his daughter a few years back. Now he helps with prep.
We complimented him on the food and he nodded, pleased. He agreed that his daughter is a talented cook. Then he puffed on his cigarette for a bit and shook his head.
"But she's not married yet. And she's already 27."
This restaurant sits on a lane that runs between Yulin 3rd Alley and Yulin 2nd Alley (Yulin San Xiang, Yulin Er Xiang), both of which run off of Yulin Dong Lu. Yulin District, Chengdu.