How to Eat Your Way Through Chengdu

By Sophie Steiner, June 6, 2023

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Chengdu is the food Mecca of China, famous for turning the spice dial up to 11 through velvety chili oil, Sichuan peppercorn sprinkles that reverberate around your mouth long after eating, and seemingly innocuous bites that still register on the Scoville Scale.

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If you are a card-carrying member of the masochist society that enjoys constantly smoldering during dinner, Chengdu is for you.

It’s an all-out heat, salt and oil offensive; a palate-killing exercise that slowly robs you of your taste buds.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

So, naturally, we decided to spend two weeks there for the sole purpose of eating our way through the entire city. The following is a smattering of spice-laden bites that engulfed our hearts in fiery flames.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Red Oil Dumplings 红油抄手 Hongyou Chaoshou

These crescent-shaped, pork-stuffed dumplings are famously found at every food stand in the city, each spot tweaking the recipe ever so slightly to cause a ripple in the die-hard fandom of one wonton shop over the next. 

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Presented atop glistening chili oil, the pleated wrappers appear harmless, even mild, at first. 

But like all streetside bowls in Sichuan, the power comes from the act of mixing – the steam from the flash-boiled wonton skins mingling with the sauce, coating each morsel in a bath of silky chili oil, hot dried chilies, sweet soy sauce, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorns. 

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Where to get it: 

  • 纯阳馆鱼香排骨面 Chún Yáng Guǎn Yúxiāng Páigǔ Miàn, No. 2, Block 8, Jixiang Lu

  • 翟大爷抄手Dí Dàyé Chāoshǒu, No. 21, Block 1, Shubei Lu

  • 八二干海椒抄手 Bā'èr Gàn Hǎijiāo Chāoshǒu, No. 30, Block 5, Menghzhuiwan Dong Lu

  • 西月城谭豆花 Xī Yuè Chéng Tán Dòuhuā, No. 1-6, Block 56, Shuwabei Er Jie

Hotpot 火锅 Huoguo

Whether you’re a winter homebody or a summer spirit, prepare to spit hot fire from the mind-rearranging heat of Chengdu’s hot pot broth.

Following in its sister city Chongqing’s footsteps, Chengdu hot pot sees a lard-like spicy butter added as the pot heats up, melting into the broth and imbuing it with extra-rich heat. 

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Mala (麻辣) is the predominant flavor thanks to the numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns (花椒, huajiao) and flamin' hot dried red chilies.

Ingredients range from sliced beef, tofu, mushrooms and pork belly to bull frog and tripe.

Duo spicy and non-spicy broths are available for those that can’t handle the heat. 

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Where to get it: 

  • 小龙坎火锅 Xiǎolóng Kǎn Huǒguō, 2/F, No. 36 Dong Da Jie 

  • 蜀大侠火锅 Shǔ Dà Xiá Huǒguō, 2/F, Bldg 1, No. 6 Shang Dong Da Jie 

  • 五里关火锅 Wǔ Lǐ Guān Huǒguō, No. 12, Block 45, Xiaoguanmiao Lu

Sweet Water Noodles 甜水面 Tian Shui Mian

A lesser-known member of the Chinese noodle brethren is tian shui mian, literally translated as “sweet water noodles,” a street snack that can be eaten at any time of day for only about RMB10.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Thick ropes of al dente noodles are swaddled in dark and light soy sauce, red chili oil, sesame and garlic paste, crushed peanuts, ground Sichuan peppercorns, and brown sugar syrup for a slick gravy that varnishes each individual ropey strand with a nip of sticky, lip-tingling spice.

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Where to get it: 

  • 沈堂甜水面 Shěn Táng Tián Shuǐmiàn, No. 5, Block 2, Xinneng Lane, Fangcao Lu

  • 翟大爷抄手 Dí Dàyé Chāoshǒu, No. 21, Block 1, Shubei Lu

  • 小名堂担担甜水面 Xiǎo Míngtáng Dàndàn Tián Shuǐmiàn, No. 13 Dongchenggenshang Lu

Guokui 锅盔

Baked flatbread pockets are sliced open – still steaming – and stuffed with anything from shaved pork belly to marinated pig ears, from jelly noodles to brown sugar. 

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In the most authentic of spots, the round bings are roasted in hot clay urns, resulting in a crackly crust that encases a fluffy center – China’s answer to a Middle Eastern pita.  

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While savory options are the most commonly found, we highly suggest seeking out those filled with brown sugar – a saccharine center that melts into a syrupy goo.

One bite reveals a molten mixture that bubbles over and oozes.

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Another alternative arrives in fried form, with the batter pressed into long strips, a spicy meat paste interspersed with a handful of chopped scallions.

The dough is then twisted in on itself and flattened with a resounding slap, before being lowered into a vat of sputtering oil and fried to a crisp. 

Where to get it: 

  • 严太婆锅魁 Yán Tàipó Guōkuí, No. 19, Section 3, Renmin Zhong Lu – for savory and sweet baked options

  • 邱二哥锅魁 Qiū Èr Gē Guōkuí, No. 45 Jinsi Jie – for the tastiest brown sugar guokui

  • 王记特色锅魁 Wáng Jì Tèsè Guōkuí, No. 100 Ma'an Nan Lu – for the fried variation

  • 酥小蒙牛肉饼店 Sū Xiǎo Méng Niúròu Bǐng Diàn, Xiyu Lu, by Huangcheng Mosque – a Muslim version of the fried form

Pugai Mian 铺盖面

Known as “bedspread noodles,” these pasta sheets are made by artisan noodle makers around Chengdu, Chongqing and neighboring villages. 

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A hunk of dough is first ripped from a heaping mound and stretched to the size (and weight) of mini blankets – roughly 12-inches long (30cm) and 3-inches wide (8cm), and tossed haphazardly into a simmering pot of water to cook for just two minutes. 

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Thick with that QQ chew, the blanket noodles are usually served swimming in a meat-heavy broth with chickpeas and garlic.

Where to get it: 

  • 蓉荣·北大铺盖面 Róng Róng Běidà Pūgài Miàn, No. 4, Block 2, Section 2, Jiefang Lu

Dan Dan Mian 担担面

A staple of Sichuan cuisine, this humble noodle dish is made with fresh, thin noodles, swaddled in chili oil, seasoned ground pork, peanuts and pickled vegetables, among a smattering of other choice toppings.

A lingering smoky heat permeates each bite, balanced by the glossy slickness of the oil. 

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While dan dan mian is customarily topped with ground pork, our favorite in the city came from the first Michelin-starred restaurant in the city, vegan-friendly Mi Xun, located in the Temple House.

The hand-pulled spinach noodles are bouncy with an al dente chew, swirling in a chili oil and farm-to-table mushroom oil.

Where to get it: 

  • Mi Xun Teahouse, Temple House Hotel, No. 81 Bitie Lu

  • 马旺子 Mǎ Wàng Zi, No. 1 Dongguanshi Lu

  • 小名堂担担甜水面 Xiǎo Míngtáng Dàndàn Tián Shuǐmiàn, No. 13 Dongchenggenshang Lu

Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐

Chen Mapo Tofu is the birthplace of this iconic Chinese dish that has found its way onto tables across the globe.

Mapo tofu was first created in the latter half of the 1800s by the wife of a small restaurant owner whose name was Chen.

Recognized for the many pockmarks she bore on her face from skin scarring, she was sympathetically called Chen Mapo (“ma” referring to the pocks on her face and “po” meaning elderly woman).

Thus, the grilled tofu that she served at her small restaurant eventually carried her name. 

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Beloved for the tofu’s signature sweltering yet sweet flavor and distinct style of cooking, the dish became famous throughout all of Chengdu, where she lived.

Descendants of the woman continued on her legacy and restaurant, which still exists in the heart of Chengdu over 150 years later.

Still serving up cast iron skillets bubbling over with custardy cubes of tofu that melt on the tongue, yet still holds shape enough to pick up with chopsticks, this famed tofu is encircled by a moat of chili oil and ground pork, the ultimate companion for a bowl of rice. 

Where to get it: 

  • 陈麻婆豆腐 Chén Mápó Dòufu, No. 10-12, Block 10, Qinghua Lu

  • 马旺子 Mǎ Wàng Zi, No. 1 Dongguanshi Lu

Chuan Chuan Malatang 串串麻辣烫 

A hands on experience (literally), chuan chuan – skewers with various ingredients dunked in a simmering pot of chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn – has become a Chengdu mainstay all around the country.

Once seated, diners can grab a basket, head over to fridges filled with ready-made skewers, and pick whatever their heart desires. 

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Head back to your table with your selections and start cooking by submerging said skewers in a cauldron of chili-oil and sesame seed-laden broth.

When the food is done, dip it into a seasoning mix of peanuts, chili powder and cilantro, and settle your bill at the end by paying for the total number of empty skewers at your table. 

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Where to get it: 

  • 冒椒火辣 Mào Jiāo Huǒ Là, No. 33 Kuixinglou Lu

Suanlafen 酸辣粉

Starchy sweet potato noodles are pounded through hole-speckled basins into boiling water, the key ingredient in suanlafen.

Ladled into a pungent broth laced with notes of spice and sour, the gummy noodle texture is best contrasted against crunchy bean sprouts and thick chunks of stewed beef. 

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Where to get it: 

  • 冒椒火辣 Mào Jiāo Huǒ Là, No. 33 Kuixinglou Lu

Leshan Shaomai 乐山烧麦

Hailing from nearby Leshan, the home of the famous Leshan Buddha, these shaomai are unlike the Cantonese fare touted at dim sum stands in Southeast China. 

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Instead, stacks on stacks of Leshan shaomai are swollen and bulbous from a ground pork and scallion center, then pinched and twisted at the top, the feathery stratum of pleats flowering open, carnation like, while being steamed. 

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Coveted for their skirted head, each thin ruffle adds an added layer of chew that sops up extra flavor from a quick dunk in aged vinegar lined with chili oil. 

Where to get it: 

  • 晓友烧麦 Xiǎo Yǒu Shāomài, No. 88 Shuangxin Nan Lu

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Ice Jelly 冰粉 Bing Fen

Bing fen is Sichuan’s answer to the United States’ JELLO and the UK’s jelly. It’s jiggly and cold, everything you could ask for after a heatwave of a meal.

The ice jelly is made from rice powder, bean powder or potato starch, giving it a glutinous texture that is less sticky than mochi. 

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This warm weather dessert soup of sorts is topped with brown sugar syrup and other garnishes like sesame seeds, peanuts, raisins and dried hawthorn.

Where to get it: Streetside stalls around the entire city

Drinks Bonus 

When your stomach can’t take the blistering heat any more, we suggest popping into any of the following standout craft cocktail and beer bars that are sprinkled throughout the city: 

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  • La Beato

  • Truth Serum

  • Jing Bar

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  • Sage

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

  • Bar Pi

  • Medisn

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[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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