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First Look: Chengdu Taste

This popular California-based chain is renowned for serving authentic—and spicy—Sichuan cuisine.


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Chengdu Taste opened in the space formerly occupied by Fortune Noodle in the 808 Center. This is the popular wonton in red chili sauce.
Photos: Kristine Wada

 

On a recent milk tea run to the 808 Center, we noticed that Fortune Noodle has been replaced by another Chinese restaurant serving similar—and perhaps even better—authentic Sichuan cuisine.

 

Not much has changed in terms of appearances: This modest space is still dimly lit, with an exposed ceiling, wooden floors and the scent of spices drifting from the open kitchen.

 

When we visited for lunch one day, most of the tables were surprisingly empty; in Los Angeles, Chengdu Taste is known for notoriously long lines. It’s also known for its Sichuan heat and unique dishes that include diced rabbit with something called “Younger Sister’s Secret Recipe,” and toothpick mutton.

 

Unfortunately, none of these specialties were listed on the single-page Honolulu menu, and our server abashedly apologized that the ice powder dessert and plum juice, though listed, were not available either.

 

Alas, Younger Sister’s Secret Recipe remains unknown to us, along with the mysterious powdered dessert.

 

We ordered a variety of dishes based on the recommendations of our server, who began by asking how spicy we like our food. Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province, a region of China famous for its fiery cuisine. If you don’t like heat, order with caution. “Not too spicy,” I said, looking worriedly at items with names like “Numb-Taste Wonton.”

 

The menu can be confusing to those unfamiliar with Sichuan cuisine: Aside from price, we couldn’t differentiate between appetizers and entrées. Fortunately, our server was happy to provide explanations.

 

The first dish to arrive was Sichuan-style mung bean jelly ($7.99). It’s a small portion, served in a small bowl, which makes for a nice appetizer or very light lunch. The cool, smooth mung bean noodles were slippery and a challenge to grasp with both chopsticks and the provided spoon. The dish is topped with chopped green onions, fried peanuts and sesame seeds and is soaked in a deep crimson sauce of preserved and fresh chilies, vinegar and fermented beans. It’s quite spicy, but the light texture of the noodles makes it a surprisingly refreshing dish and a great start to the meal.

 

The Sichuan-style mung bean jelly makes a great appetizer or light lunch.

 

The Couple’s Sliced Beef features thin slivers of beef and crunchy tripe served in a spicy chili sauce.

 

Our second dish, Couple’s Sliced Beef in Chili Sauce ($12.99), is also an appetizer-size portion, with thin slivers of beef and crunchy tripe served chilled in a shallow pool of chili oil, black vinegar, garlic and green onions. The mild spice of this dish nicely offset the heat of the chili sauce.

 

The wonton in red chili sauce ($8.99), stuffed with ground pork and topped with green onions, is tender and tasty, but nothing unique.

 

Our favorite dish, though, was the boiled fresh fish with green pepper ($16.99), an impressive dish that arrives at the table in a massive bowl steaming and piled high with colorful green and red chilies. The broth smells both aromatic and savory and packs a slow heat that was a bit tricky since it’s so delicious that we wish we could drink it by the spoonful. (If you do, it will clear your sinuses.) The pot is filled with pieces of melt-in-your-mouth fish, as well as crisp bean sprouts, cucumber and floating Sichuan peppercorns. It’s a wonderful dish to share, and we left with ample leftovers.

 

The boiled fresh fish with green pepper has an aromatic broth that’s tasty and addictive.

 

In addition to the many meat dishes, we ordered the sautéed Arden lettuce ($12.99), the only nonspicy dish of the lunch. It delivers in flavor, however, with a smoky, garlicky, sesame taste.

 

Much-loved Chinese classics are available at Chengdu Taste, like mapo tofu, fried rice and dan dan mian (tan tan noodles). If you’re looking for something unique, check the dry-erase board at the entrance for the chef’s special. The day we visited, five exclusive orders of braised dongpo pork hock with the chef’s special sauce ($18.99) were available.

 

By the end of lunch, the restaurant was packed with chatty eaters, and we were ready for a sweet cool down with gelato from La Gelateria, a short walk away.

 

We’ll stay on the lookout for diced rabbit with that elusive Younger Sister’s Secret Recipe and ice powder dessert. But, with so many dishes on the Chengdu Taste menu yet to try, we’ll be quite content with whatever’s available.

 

Chengdu Taste, 808 Sheridan St., #105, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays. Valet parking available in the 808 Center’s automated parking garage, 589-1818

 

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