Friday evening, my wife and I joined my parents for dinner in Squirrel Hill. For many years, the only options that I had for Chinese food were the few “American” Chinese restaurants in Squirrel Hill. As the city invited more food cultures in and became more receptive to more “ethnic foods”, it was inspiring to see more authentic Szechuan Chinese restaurants open up. Now Squirrel Hill has at least 3 (How Lee, Sichuan Gourmet, and Chengdu Gourmet). I have found that I prefer almost all of the dishes I’ve had at Chengdu Gourmet, whereas my experiences not been as stellar at the other two. I’d be doing them a disservice if I didn’t at least recommend the Chengdu Chicken at How Lee or the Silk Tofu Noodle Soup at Sichuan Gourmet, both standouts in the entire city. However, our outstanding meal this time was at Chengdu Gourmet, which highlighted a wide variety of the best of homestyle Chinese cooking.
Probably the most well-known of the traditional Sichuan dishes, double cooked pork belly is an easy and accessible foray into the wide world of traditional Chinese dishes. Imagine the smokiness of bacon, just slightly cooked, so you still get that chewy porky fatty goodness, with crispy and vibrant green onions and leeks. It’s like someone took your beef with broccoli and threw it in the smokehouse. The long, fatty strips of pork belly ride the punch and snap of the tart and bitter green onions. It all comes together wonderfully with the slightly spicy black bean chili oil to create a heavy, indulgent dish. Best paired with a side of veggies. Speaking of which…
I do not speak lightly of vegetable side dishes and the baby bok choy with black mushrooms are a can’t-miss at Chengdu Gourmet. The bok choy is lightly sauteed in a wok, keeping the leaves green and bright, allowing the cabbage-like bodies to be cooked into a satisfying soft crunch, not unlike fresh romaine. The leaves left soft enough to pick up all of the incredible black mushroom sauce, but still substantial enough to provide that spinach-like body in all good bok choy. Speaking of the mushrooms. These magical creations are unlike any other mushroom I’ve ever had. Each cap is meaty, like seriously steaky meaty, with a soft chew and give akin to a scallop. It’s incredible. Each mushroom is absolutely infused through and through with their amazing beefy, earthy, sweet, savory, unctuous glaze. After this dish comes to your table and before you all dig in, make sure you count out the mushrooms and dole them out evenly or there are going to be some fist fights at your table.
The Shrimp with Sizzling Rice Crust at Chengdu Gourmet is a little simpler than most preparations I’ve seen, opting for the individual crunchy rice cakes, rather than a dome of sizzling crust. The rice is presented, then the extremely hot white wine and garlic sauce is poured in, creating a popping and sizzling, essentially cooking some of the rice into a softer consistency while leaving other chunks of rice (edibly) crunchy. The shrimp were easily the star of the dish, fresh, large, sweet, and with a beautiful snap. The seafood flavor permeated nicely throughout the thick white garlic sauce, which was supported by the addition of lots of crunchy elements (water chestnuts, snow peas, and wood ear mushrooms). Roasted and steamed tomatoes were a nice addition, adding a robust tartness to the sweet oceany sauce.
If you like chicken and you like basil, you’re probably going to like the Chicken Basil Hot Pot. The slow-braised chicken thighs practically meld into the syrupy thick and sweet basil soy sauce. The basil is nigh-inescapable (though why would you want to escape the basil?) and permeates through every pore of this dish. The strong sweetness of the black sauce brings the high notes of the sharp and bitter basil down to a far more even keel, balancing out the entire dish and creating magnificent bite after bite that you never want to end (assuming you love both chicken and basil).
My second favorite of traditional Sichuan dishes is the Diced Chicken with Dried Pepper, Chonqing Style or Chonqing Chicken. Tiny pieces of chicken are wok-fried in oil to get them crispy and then tossed with about as many Sichuan red chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns as you’d need to kill a grown man, and then a few more for good measure. The resulting dish is the most addictive bowl of spicy popcorn chicken you’ve ever had. The peppercorns provide a nice low spice, while the chili spice keeps the low burn going. Nothing like the high-end notes of spicy chicken wings or chili sauces like we’re used to, the Chongqing Chicken provides a nice, consistent, low burn throughout the meal. Whenever you find yourself taking a sip of water or tea, however, you’ll get the pure treat of a numbed mouth and the light tingle of the liquid. It’s a fun side-effect of the sichuan peppercorns. The key to truly enjoying the dish is to just eat the chicken, as well as the tiny slices of garlic and ginger tossed throughout, while avoiding the chili peppers and peppercorns directly. It’s impossible to avoid them completely, just don’t sit there eating the entire bowl thinking “Wow, this sure is inedibly spicy! Oh well!”. I’m a huge proponent of “don’t serve it to me if I can’t eat it”, but in this case I realize there have to be exceptions. The peppers are simply there because that’s how the entire dish is prepared and it would be impossible to remove all of the peppers and still serve the dish hot.
While Chengdu Gourmet serves all of the “American” Chinese-style dishes that you may find in more standard Chinese restaurants, it’s in their traditional dishes that they truly excel and shine.