Expanding Tastes: Chinese Food in Hawai‘i Wasn’t the Same Without Chengdu Taste
This Sichuan mini-chain restaurant is back, bigger and bolder.
Clockwise from top right: eggplant with spicy garlic sauce, toothpick lamb, boiled fish with green pepper, and pork with garlic sauce.
Chengdu Taste has reopened on the second floor of 808 Center, and it’s bigger and more unapologetically Chinese than ever. Take the hot pink menu printed in Chinese only, with new dishes such as stir-fried kidneys ($14.99), sliced thin and scored like squid at a sushi bar. But there’s nothing delicate or jewel-like about this preparation—rather, the grayish meat is tossed with whole dried chiles and ruffles of wood ear fungus, muddy brown with a crunch similar to cartilage.
Welcome back, Chengdu Taste. We missed you.
Later, I have a translator (aka my dad) decode the pink menu for me—the servers seem uninterested in helping with that, they’re so busy tending to the packed dining room on a Tuesday night, filled with Chinese nationals (where have they been eating this whole time?). Our server called the pink sheet the chef’s specials. I’ve renamed it the entrails menu, since half of the 14 dishes listed include pig intestines or kidneys.
Dishes on the original menu (aka the one in English) are more accessible, while still embodying the fiery spiced flavors that the Sichuan province has come to be known for, especially in the United States in recent years. There’s the mung bean jelly noodle with chile sauce ($7.99) and flavored chicken with chile sauce ($12.99)—you’re going to see “chile sauce” a lot on the menu—the noodles cool and slippery, the chicken velvety, soft counterparts to the prickly and tangy sauce they’re doused in.
It’s likely you will never see so much chile oil in your life as in the boiled fish in hot sauce ($17.99), in which fillets of fish are literally bathed in cups of scarlet oil. The menu descriptions are almost comically sparse—again, there’s the impression that Chengdu Taste is not kowtowing to the palates of anyone but the Chinese who already know what they’re getting into. The boiled fish with green pepper ($17.99) is a lighter version of the above dish, the red oil replaced with a clear soup with fresh green chiles, Sichuan peppercorn and fresh mung bean sprouts. The griddle-cooked beef ($19.99) gives no hint to the lashings of cumin and citrusy and numbing Sichuan peppercorn in the dish, nor the sautéed eggplant with spicy garlic sauce ($11.99) that proves bland eggplant is just a failure of the imagination. The toothpick lamb ($17.99) arrives as chunks of fatty and tender cumin-crusted lamb, individually skewered with toothpicks and heaped on a plate like hors d’oeuvres that fell off the platter and were hastily thrown back on. You’ll want to order the off-menu smoked plum juice ($12), sweet and sour, which will help balance the spiciness of the food.
This popular Los Angeles-based mini-chain counts Honolulu as its fifth location and one that was by chance, according to Chengdu’s manager, Kevin Gao. He came to Hawai‘i for a vacation in late 2015 and blamed his unintentional weight loss on the lack of good Chinese food here. He joked with his boss, Chengdu Taste owner and Sichuan native Tony Xu, about opening a restaurant in Honolulu to fill that void. Around the same time, Xu was approached about a space at 808 Center. In 2016, within months of the manager’s visit, Chengdu Taste opened.
In 2018, though, Chengdu Taste, having outgrown its space, closed to prepare for its move upstairs, while the noodle-focused Mian served as a placeholder. Like a twin that you never see at the same time, Mian closed right before Chengdu Taste reopened. But we’re told Mian in Honolulu isn’t gone forever—just until management smooths out operations in the bigger digs.
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays. 808 Sheridan St., #105, (808) 589-1818.