1. Many people in Chengdu are experts on the local food scene. Recruit one of them, but don’t be shocked if they insist on paying for your meal every time.
2. Go downtown to the Crowne Plaza hotel, walk out on the main road to your left, and within two minutes you will see on your left a “TangSong food street” — a covered food court about twenty-five small Sichuan places. There is a sushi place too but I saw the customers dipping their sushi rolls in hot red chili oil. It is heartwarming to walk into such a culinary universe.
2b. Within this court my favorite place is labeled “1862 History,” you might spot the small print, in any case the place looks spare and is somewhat larger than the very small venues.
3. MaPo tofu is much finer here, and the black peppers and quality vinegars are to be appreciated.
4. Sichuan chili chicken and Dan Dan noodles are two of my favorite Sichuan dishes back home. Here they have been good, but actually slightly disappointing relative to expectations. Don’t obsess over those during your quest.
4b. There are two philosophies of international trade. In one philosophy, the best dishes are the best dishes and so you should order them at home and also order them abroad in their countries of origin. In the second philosophy, it is the most exportable dishes which get exported but they are not in general the best dishes period. When abroad you therefore should try out the dishes you cannot find at home. For Chengdu at least, this second philosophy is the correct one as Jacob Viner had hinted way back in the mid-1930s.
5. Often the most interesting dishes are the accompanying vegetables. For instance at a hot pot restaurant I had excellent elongated yam cubes coated in a (slightly sweet) blueberry sauce and stacked ever so perfectly. It was the ideal offset to the hotness and tingle of the core dishes. At another restaurant I most enjoyed some simple greens dipped in a sesame soy sauce. Or try potato or lotus root in hot pot.
6. Unless you go to great lengths to avoid this fate, you will end up eating strange parts of the animal. You won’t like all of them, but you won’t dislike all of them either.
6b. If you utter “Ma La” with conviction, they will think you are remarkably sophisticated or perhaps even fluent in Chinese. The populace here seems unaware that some version of real Sichuan food is now reasonably popular in the United States.
7. Many menus have photos, but they show lots of red and are not useful for identifying exactly what you will be eating. See #6.
8. There are two areas — Jin Li and Wenshu Fang — where old buildings and streets are recreated and you can stroll in a kind of outdoor shopping mall. Everyone goes to these locales and they are fun. These neighborhoods are good for finding lots of takeaway Sichuan snacks, including desserts, in a single area, and served in sanitary conditions. That said, I don’t think these are the very best Sichuan goodies to be had in town, as they are designed explicitly for tourists, albeit food-loving Chinese tourists.
9. “Chengdu food” and “Sichuan food” are not the same thing. Sichuan province has more people than France, and Chengdu is simply one large city, and so your favorite Sichuan dish may not be a staple here. The town also has a fair amount of Tibetan food, though I haven’t tried any.
10. If you leave Chengdu confused as to exactly where and what you ate, you probably had a very good food trip.