Friday, June 24, 2011

Chengdu's Best Dan Hong Gao

This is one of those places that is so good, and so small and perfect, that I hesitate to spread the word. However they are already on dianping so the secret is out. It's just off Cao Jia Alley, where I had great spring rolls last week.

Dan hong gao is more of a winter than a summer snack, but I still had to wait several minutes to make an order in the middle of the afternoon on one of the hottest days so far. They were also selling bing fen (cool clear jelly with sugar syrup on top) and a lot of customers were ordering that on the side.

They have a menu of several kinds of dan hong gao, many of which you would not find anywhere else. By far the most popular is 'guai wei', strange flavour. I also ordered a 'san xian'. I don't usually go for meat-filled dan hong gao, but these were so, so good. The outsides were unusually crisp and the fillings were amazing. I also asked the vendor to make my usual peanut butter and strawberry jam but I didn't like the peanut butter. 

Sweet, spicy, and savoury insides for the guai wei:

Stepping into Cao Jia Alley is like stepping into the past. While I was there a delivery man with big milk cans on his bike came by, and people came out with their containers to get milk from him.


Location: 曹家内巷


Looking back through the archives, there hasn't been a post about a Japanese place in nearly two years. This is not for lack of eating Japanese food, but for the difficulty in finding Japanese food in Chengdu worth writing about. Tsukushima is the first Japanese restaurant in a long time that I've liked enough to not only go back, but to invite a Japanese friend along. (And did not lose face. Whew!)

They had a board with a couple of 25 yuan lunch specials, written in Chinese and Japanese:

Since it was a sweltering hot day I got an order of salmon sushi. The fish was decently fresh and cool and the rice was good quality and nicely seasoned. Liked it a lot.

I also got a bowl of buckwheat noodles and tempura. The noodle broth had an authentic flavour but I thought it could have been stronger. The tempura was a good version, though I expected a bit more of it and it got a little too soggy in the soup:

We tried their cold tofu salad, which was nice and smooth and refreshing, especially with the sweet, clean-flavoured Japanese soy sauce on the table.

The grilled fish lunch special came with salad, miso soup, rice, fruit, and pickles. The real stars on the platter were the rice and the miso soup. The miso soup was bottomless, which really impressed us.

The seasonings on the table, besides the soy sauce, included typical Japanese hot pepper and msg-salt.

The only thing I would not re-order was this 58 yuan California roll. It was rolled too loose and the seaweed was kind of tough. The large, loose chunks made for clumsy eating.

We didn't order anything off their drinks menu but they have a selection of sake and shochu and some Japanese fruit drinks. They also have some Western food on the menu, like steak, sandwiches, and noodles. The menu has pictures of most items but not of the set meals which are a better deal. The English on the menu has been translated from the Chinese names of the dishes so it can be a bit hard to make out, but is kind of fun - udon noodles are 'black winter noodles', etc.

The manager, a Chinese girl who spoke very fluent Japanese, was taking good care of us but the other servers seemed a little green. The ambiance, with Japanese traditional and pop songs playing, was good though we were bothered by the smokers. We would ask for one of their tatami rooms the next time we go.


Chinese name: 月岛
Address: 天益街38 号 4 栋附8

Just outside the High Tech Zone subway stop.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cao Jia Alley Snacks

The northeast quadrant of the first ring has some of the best residential food streets in Chengdu. Today I stopped by Cao Jia Alley to see what I could find. The first thing that tempted was some soft tofu (豆花), five yuan for a bowl.

The server mixed up a bowl of seasoning for me. Very good.

There were several vendors with carts doing things like fried rice or fried noodles. This bo bo chicken seemed popular, but I didn't try it:

A vendor mixing up seasoned cold noodles with rapid chopsticks caught my eye, and then what really made me take notice was the sign on her cart: 小春卷 - spring rolls! I asked for two yuan worth and when she said, "You want mustard?" I could have hugged her. She mixed up fresh shredded radish and carrot with the seasonings and added a couple of peanuts, a sesame seed or two, and a few pieces of dried tofu in the wrappers. She added a splash of vinegar at the end, after asking me if I wanted to eat them 'sweet or sour'. The spring rolls were searingly spicy from the mustard and tangy and crunchy and exactly what you feel like eating on a muggy night.

Great spring roll vendors seem to be harder to find in Chengdu than in other Sichuanese cities. I hope I run into her again.

Location: Cao Jia Inner Alley (曹家内巷)

Hong Xing

When Chengdu folks are asked about good places to get local food, Hong Xing is one of the most frequent recommendations. A taxi driver is just as likely to mention it as a well-heeled businessperson. I'd been in the Zijin Rd Hong Xing before and liked it a lot, and stopped in at the Yang Xi Xian location recently.

My favourite dish of the day, the iron plate eggplant (铁板茄子). Perfectly cooked eggplant in a tangy sauce. Some of the pieces had meat stuffing, but it wasn't heavy at all.

One of our cold dishes, the liang fen (凉粉). Nice classic local dish, though much different than the menu picture.

Donkey in aspic, a nice refreshing cold meat dish, even better after a dip in the dressing that came on the side.

 We had to try their dan dan noodles. Just ok.

Tea tree mushrooms were done up in a very typical local taste, but with shredded onions on top making the dish look like Beijing-style jing jiang rou si. Very clever.

Nicely done order of kong xin cai (空心菜)

They didn't have gong bao ji ding but we could order gong bao rou ding, which uses pork instead of chicken. I thought chicken would have been better.

Dining room.

The servers at Hong Xing all seem to be well managed and well trained, which really adds to the experience. Hong Xing is an occasion restaurant but is also an ideal place for those times when you just want to get together with people and eat well without breaking the bank.

Name in Chinese: 红杏

Address: 西延线蜀汉路289号一品天下美食街

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lei Garden 利苑

Expensive Cantonese food is all too easy to find in Chengdu. Really good Cantonese food presented in a beautiful setting is much rarer. Lei Garden is part of a respected Hong Kong based restaurant chain whose main branch has been graced with a Michelin star. The Chengdu branch is about a year old and we've stopped in for dim sum a couple of times.

The interior is elegant and non-smoking. There are a couple of tables outside for diners who want to smoke or enjoy the atmosphere. Each place setting has two sets of chopsticks - one for serving yourself and one for eating.

Chrysanthemum tea (菊花茶).

Crispy shredded taro spring rolls (芋丝脆春卷),  one of our favourite dishes:

Classic cha shao bao (叉烧包), light and white as a cloud with well-sauced pork inside:

Our main difficulty with Lei Garden is that with no English and traditional Chinese characters only on their dim sum menu, we had a tough time ordering. (The regular menu has English.) Even with the help of their servers, who know the menu well, we had some ordering missteps.  I tried to order turnip cake but ended up with a turnip pastry (银萝千层酥). Decent, but their turnip cake is better.

The server recommended we try the colorful coral roll - 五彩珊瑚卷. Nice creative dish with eye appeal, and a better treatment of seafood than we usually run into in Chengdu. The sauce was bottled French style salad dressing.

This lovely basket of classic shao mai (烧卖) made us forget for a moment all the terrible factory frozen dim sum that we've been subjected to in Chengdu.

Soup dumplings, (利苑小笼包), held together well and had rather gingery soup inside. Very good.

We sadly could not find any veg on the dim sum menu, so we ordered shrimp sauce lettuce from their regular menu. It was good, but cost more than three times our dim sum items.

Shrimp chang fen (鲜虾仁肠粉).  Good shrimp but the big chunks of celery inside were so crisp they seemed almost raw. It seemed more like a display of steam cooking skill than an attempt to make a good dish.

Water chestnut cake (马蹄糕), bigger chunks of chestnut than most versions. Nice but not really to our taste. We would order their deceptively light and rich custard bun (奶黄包) next time.

Ice cold, tart, and gorgeous 杨枝 甘路, a typical Hong Kong dessert with mango, tapioca, and pomelo. Lei Garden's version is deservedly famous. We ordered this off of the regular menu.

We didn't love every dish and there are certain dim sum that we prefer eating at other places. Prices are on the high side for dim sum in Chengdu, and ordering a couple of dishes off the regular menu nudged our bill well north of 100 yuan per person. However, even with their premium prices raising our expectations most of the dishes do not disappoint, and their servers are some of the best we've run into locally. Lei Garden has become one of our favourite places for occasions.

成都 兰桂芳