This is the place. I’ve been in L.A. for two years, stalking my way around the San Gabriel valley, slurping noodles at Tasty Noodle House and tearing into salted egg yolk pastries at Sea Harbour. Secretly, I was looking for a place that would put our favorite New York Chinese restaurant, Grand Sichuan, to shame. The only thing that was in the same ballpark was Chung King where I went with Zach Brooks last year. It was ok, but it didn’t blow me out of the water. I’d pretty much let go of the idea of supplanting Grand Sichuan since most of my San Gabriel experiences were Cantonese. Then, last week, I met up with Ganda and Zach for lunch at a place that Kat Odell recommended during my podcast: Chengdu Taste. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What I was really looking for was a place to take Craig and our friends Mark and Diana to show off the superior Chinese food here on the west coast. My first attempt at that, Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village, was a total disaster. We were made to wait 90 minutes after being told 30 and others were shepherded in despite arriving after us. Craig blew a gasket at the table when they said they were out of soup dumplings. We left that experience with the Chinese food equivalent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Chengdu Taste has a very different vibe. It’s bustling at lunch, but the service is warm and friendly. After Ganda, Zach and I placed our order, our waitress–who got a kick out of our selections (which included rabbit and dan dan noodles, served spicy, as intended)–offered to bring us over a free bowl of noodles. That’s what you see at the top of this post and they were a whopper of a thing. Spicy, slick and jam-packed with texture and flavor. I broke out into a sweat and it was just my first bite.
What really did it for me, though, were the string beans. This was a standard staple for us at Grand Sichuan: “Dried sautéed string beans with pork.” Chengdu Taste puts the Grand Sichuan string beans to shame. A few reasons: these beans were remarkably fresh. They had a brightness and a verdancy that positively screamed California. Then there’s the matter of their preparation: the wok used must’ve been blazingly hot. The beans had a texture that could only happen when you put something in a vessel so hot, the outside is immediately charred and the inside wilts only slightly, remaining, as the Italians, would say “al dente.” The final balance of flavors–with chiles and soy sauce and pork–were totally in balance. I couldn’t stop eating these. They’re a marvel.
Like good foodies, we ordered the Jonathan Gold-recommended Diced Rabbit with Younger Sister’s Secret Recipe. Gold’s description of the dish is, as usual, on the money: “utterly bony, buzzing with salty, fermented heat.” It’s funny, that description describes both what I liked and didn’t like about the dish. Bones? Didn’t really like (they were tricky to work around; I know, I know, I’m supposed to like gnawing at bones. But I don’t.). Flavor? Top notch. (Though, you should know, the dish is served cold. In case you don’t like cold rabbit.)
The cumin lamb on toothpicks was my other favorite dish. The menu has two cumin lamb dishes and our waitress explained that one features lamb on toothpicks, the other doesn’t. We picked toothpicks. This made the lamb almost like a passed appetizer at a Bar Mitzvah and it was all the better for it. The lamb was moist on the inside, crisp on the outside, and punchy with cumin and chile flavors.
Finally we ordered the dan dan noodles which the menu lists as “tan tan noodles.” These, too, were pretty special. The noodles themselves weren’t at all greasy; they tasted fresh from the water (I asked Ganda if she thought they were made in-house and she said no because of how uniform they all were). Still, they tasted like they were made in-house which is saying a lot. And once again, the balance of ingredients made these more dazzling than the greasier, over-saturated version I was used to eating in New York.
And that pretty much sums up Chengdu Taste: my favorite kind of Chinese food prepared with more care, more subtlety, and better technique than any similar meal I’ve had before. It’s, without question, my new favorite Chinese restaurant in California. I’m already planning my next trip back.