There's a piece of food-ish traveler's wisdom that says: If you're in Asia and looking for authentic/delicious/truly local (fill in the blank) food, avoid any stall or restaurant frequented by foreigners.
We say: BS. Believe it or not, some of us actually know good local grub from crap.
The veracity of this assertion was proven to me (again) on our visit to Chengdu in September. Before we left KL Dave picked up an assignment from the New York Times to shoot a food story. (Read the story and see the slideshow here; view some out-takes from the shoot -- one particularly stunning styled image in particular -- here.)
The assignment afforded us the opportunity to sample the offerings at a couple of upscale establishments; both experiences were great, and the food often quite good. But in the end we are jiachang cai (home-style food) folks. So it should come as no surprise that we most cottoned to the vittles that came out of the kitchen at the least pretentious establishment featured in the write-up: Yang Yang.
The thing is, if we subscribed to that 'avoid the places where foreigners eat' traveler's adage above and had arrived at Yang Yang under our own steam, we would never have set foot in the place. There were foreigners, lots of foreigners occupying tables on Yang Yang's front porch, and more inside. More foreigners, in fact, than we've ever seen at any of the places we frequent here in Malaysia.
That said, there were plenty of locals too. The point is -- everyone was there for the same thing: truly delicious renditions of (mostly) Sichuanese favorites.
We were somewhat restricted in what we could order in that Dave needed photogenic dishes. I think we did OK.
Pictured above, 'water-boiled' beef, pig intestines deep-fried and then fried again with fresh green and dried red chilies, and pao cai, or pickle. A hint: wherever you eat in Chengdu, whether it be at a noodle stall or a restaurant like Yang Yang, order pao cai. Every place makes its own, and they're all different.)
Not pictured, because they weren't pretty enough: spinach stir-fried with dried red chilies and hua jiao (Sichuan 'peppercorns'); liang ban zhu er gen (aka fish mint) -- an appealingly astringent, citrusy leaf -- tossed with chili oil-black vinegar-sugar dressing; and what the restaurant calls 'Japanese dofu' (the type of soft, smooth bean curd sold in a plastic tube) in sweet and sour sauce.
The latter dish was Yang Yang's only misstep, clearly designed for foreign palates, cloyingly sweet and just all around meh.
The others, however, would make a Sichuanese grandmother proud. We assured the waitress that yes, we chi la (eat spicy), and the kitchen delivered.
Though the deep-fried intestines were too rich to allow more than a few bites, we loved the contrast of the super fatty, pungent offal with the still-crisp fresh green and the dried red chilies -- a perfect balance. The water boiled beef, perched on a bed of mustard leaves, mostly submerged in a pool of ferociously ma-la oil, and crowned with a golfball of pulverized garlic, qualifies as a dream dish in our books.
More innards (L) and cabbage stir-fried with pork and pickled red chilies
Was this the absolute tastiest meal we had on this last trip to Chengdu? No. But it came darned close, and wecan't wait to mine Yang Yang's menu on our next journey to the land of ma-la.
We'd even be willing to sit next to a table of foreigners.
Yang Yang, 32 Jin Yuan Xiang, Wu Hou District; 86-28-8523-1394.