Hot Luck on Kingsway Near Willingdon, Burnaby

Some of my friends at work told me that if I wanted to try spicy hot food, I should go and try the new restaurant on Kingsway just next door to Saffron. And they warned me that their food is super-duper hot. This had been on my radar for a few weeks already and I knew it was just a matter of time before I go with Suanne and the boys.

Hot-Luck-Burnaby-6-600x400

Last week, I had one of those heavy days at work. The first meeting started at 7AM and it is one after another with a large group of team members. And I had to run the meetings. It would have been easier if I am just an attendee. So by late morning, I was totally spent and decided to just drop everything and went outside to clear my head.

It was a good thing I had the camera with me that day. So I went to have lunch on my own at Hot Luck.

Outside the restaurant, there is a sandwich board that says that the Lunch Special is just $5.95. I thought it was awfully cheap. I can’t think of any restaurant like this that has lunch specials that cheap. Are you aware of any?

Hot-Luck-Burnaby-2-600x400

The interior is clean, bright and neat. Some of the bigger tables even has white linen too. I was impressed particularly because they serve such cheap lunch specials here.

Hot Luck is a Sichuan cuisine restaurant. They had been opened for 3 months already and words had spread that their food is super hot.

Hot-Luck-Menu-3Hot-Luck-Menu-2

You know it is super hot when all the pictures on the menu are red in colour.

I was so enticed by their House Special and Combo Special items above. Unfortunately they are meant for a minimum of two people and up. I guess I got to come back another day to try them.

Hot-Luck-Menu-1Hot-Luck-Menu-4

If you look at the rest of the menu above, you will find that it is not as cheap as the sandwich board outside makes it out to be. Most of the Lunch Specials are $8. The main dishes are above $10.

Their food are not expensive but just that it is not as cheap as you might be led to think.

Hot-Luck-Burnaby-1-600x400

As usual, I asked for their recommendation for a starter. The waitress said that their Spiced Beef with 5 Spices ($5) is one of their favourite and pointed to the table next to me. It seems like that table was not the only one that had this starter.

This is a cold dish. Even the dish it was served on was cold. The beef slices were not as hot as it looked.

Hot-Luck-Burnaby-3-600x400

I did not want to get the Lunch Special because lunch specials being what it is are not true representation of what the restaurant serves well. After asking me if I can take hot food, the waitress said I should try their … Diced Chicken with Red Pepper ($14). I said “Bring it on”.

Hot-Luck-Burnaby-4-600x400

What do you make of it when half the plate consists of red pepper chilis? In my bravado, I ate one and then another. By the third piece, it was totally impossible to continue having another.

So I was sitting there asking myself if this is even meant to be eaten at all. For a person who had grown up eating hot and spicy food, I never thought I would give up so fast.

Hot-Luck-Burnaby-20-400x600

It wasn’t just the red peppers. It was the heap of Sichuan peppercorns that gave me that weird tingling and numbing sensation on the side of the tongue. And there were so much of it too!

I must add that it was fragrant and tasted good. It’s just that it was impossibly numbing.

Hot-Luck-Burnaby-5-600x400

I know it does not make sense to you. I am saying here now that I love this dish but at the same time it is also ridiculously hot. I don’t think that there are many people on this planet who would be able to finish this on their own.

I did not even talk about the chicken because it was the pepper and peppercorns that I think of in this dish. The chicken was good — dry and fragrant. So I thought that maybe people don’t ever eat the pepper and peppercorn and just pick the chicken.

Hot-Luck-Burnaby-22-400x600

I gave up on the Diced Chicken dish after barely eating 1/3 of it.

But I liked it a lot. Like I said … what I am saying will likely not make any sense to you.

Hot-Luck-Burnaby-21-400x600

From a place that serves $6 Lunch Specials, I ended up with a $21 check.

If you like the pain from eating spicy food, I think you will like this place.

Whew!

Hotluck Restaurant 湘蜀飄香 on Urbanspoon

This Post Has 0 Comments

  1. Wendy

    Ooh I’ve always passed by this place too but since I’m not a big fan of spicy foods I’ve always just passed by it. My coworkers and I like to make fun of the name though…the combination of “Hot Luck” and the literal translation from its Chinese name to “Spicy Seduction” gives an impression of another type of store heehee~

    1. Ben

      Really, Wendy? How do you pronounce the Chinese name in Cantonese and Mandarin? I can’t read but would likely know from the pronunciation.

  2. trisha

    i thought it was kind of funny that no lunch special was under 7.95 yet the sandwich board says 5.95. or was there another menu? i wouldn’t survive those peppers but i have a friend who would enjoy that. i’ll have to take him!

    1. Ben

      Hi Trisha: The $5.95 items are not on the printed menu. They are written on the board inside the menu. If I recall correctly, I think one of the items is fried rice.

  3. Marike

    LOL, I can’t imagine how I could still enjoy eating when my tongue is numb and throat is burning…

    You spice lovers sure like to torture yourself. 😉

  4. Jenny

    Sounds like a good place to challenge one’s tolerance for spicy food.

    I assure you, people from Sichuan can finish such a spicy dish, I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve also eaten ridiculously spicy hot pot, where the top layer of the soup consisted of chili oil and pepper. As spicy as it may be, but I too enjoyed it, I was pretty much sweating/tearing up a storm by the time we finsihed 😛

    1. Ben

      Hi Jenny: I can’t imagine you would like hot and spicy food at all. Are you Cantonese? For some reason, I thought you are Cantonese.

      1. Jenny

        Actually I am originally from Sichuan, but since I lived here and there, I can’t tolerate spicy food as well as people who actually live there. But I love spicy food 🙂

  5. Melody Fury

    Whoa those peppercorns and chilies look intense! Good job 🙂

  6. Eat. Travel. Eat!

    This looks REALLY spicy! It seems like all Yunnan/Sichuan places love to add tons of peppers/chili oil into their cooking. I had to pick out the pieces of sliced lamb when I ordered cumin lamb at one restaurant. There was a giant pool of chili oil and tons of chopped peppers…so hard to dodge them!

  7. DylanK

    I like the combination American southwest/Chinese restaurant vibe with the decorations. This is a good place. The English description of 毛血旺 (what does it say? pork guts and duck blood, jeez) doesn’t make it sound amazing, but it’s a great dish and they do it really good here. Homestyle tofu 家常豆腐 is also great. When I eat chicken with peppers like that (辣子鸡-style), my method is this: eat the chicken, leaving the chili and Sichuan peppercorn and green onion and whatever else on the plate, then, at the end of the meal, get all that wrapped up, take it home and eat it wrapped in Chinese flatcakes (tortillas are cool, too– same thing).

  8. HM

    Ben, I can’t help laughing out loud when reading your comments cos I had the same numbing experience with peppercorns chili oil given to me by one of my Shanghainese clients; a huge 750ml bottle she made herself! It was good gesture on her part, but alas! no la…..ended up giving much of it away…LOL!! BTW, has anyone tried Green Basil (Thai cuisine)on Kingsway next to Sushi Garden?

  9. Joa

    Diced Chicken with Red Pepper is my favorite, but I only eat the chicken, not dare to try the hot pepper and peppercorn. Ben, you are brave!

    1. Ben

      He he he … I don’t think I am brave. That is why I was sitting there and was thinking if people actually eat the red peppers and peppercorns. I am just ignorant … that’s what I was.

  10. LotusRapper

    Well Ben, you wanted to go out of your office to clear your head, you certainly did that !

    Good on ya for braving out at a place like this. I know I couldn’t, I like spicy foods but my tolerance is perhaps pretty average by most standards.

    I drive by Hot Luck every day on my commute and wondered what it’s all about, now I know !

    1. Ben

      Hi LotusRapper: My head was all light and wooshy after all the hot food. Hey, I FINALLY went to Kura a few doors away — you recommended that some time ago. It was good.

      1. LotusRapper

        Cool 🙂

        Now go try YAKKO SUSHI a few doors west of Sussex. Newly opened since around November ? Owners (Korean) are related to the other Yakko Sushi in Station Square. But this one is much better in terms of quality and value. Bento lunch box only $6 and filled with food, the beef teriyaki is particularly good IMO. Several ramen choices, all very decent, with the basic veggie version only $5 for a large, hot nourishing bowl.

        I’m there averaging once a week now, abandoning my former favorite ASAKUSA on the other side of Sussex.

        1. Ben

          Hi LotusRapper: We had been to the Yakko Sushi on Kingsway and Sussex. However it was in Aug-2008 (see our post here). Asakusa is still our favourite — Nanzaro asked that I bring home their Combo B once a week.

          1. LotusRapper

            Oh I remember that post now.

            I suspect it’s new management now, with recent renovations. Judging from their current menu, it doesn’t look like they make the kinds of large mondo-sushi you had. I could be wrong. If you ever walk by and poke your head in now, you’ll likely be able to tell right away if they are the same folks that were there back in mid-2008.

            At any rate, their $6 lunch boxes are quite decent as are their noodle bowls (I wouldn’t call their noodles “authentically Japanese ramen” in the same sense as the current trend of authentic Japanese ramen houses).

  11. fmed

    Nice work! Looks authentic right down to the use of Facing Heaven Peppers (the short stubby ones) in the chicken dish. It isn’t easy to find that ingredient. I will have to go there very very soon.

    1. Ben

      Hi fmed: When you said Heaven Facing Peppers, I just thought of bird eye chili peppers. In Cantonese they are pronounced as Jee-Tin-Jeiu and literally translated to “Pointing to Sky Peppers”. Do you know what they are called in Cantonese or Mandarin?
      Ben

      1. fmed

        (Bird’s eye are the smaller and skinnier “Thai” peppers. It is “labuyong” in Filipino).

        “Pointing to Sky” and “Heaven Facing Peppers” are the same thing. It gets its name from the way the fruit is oriented on the plant…bottom pointing upwards. It is medium-heat and has a sort of citrus-orange scent when cooked and thus complements well with the citrus-piney scent of Sichuan Peppercorns.

        cháo tiān jiāo
        zhǐ tiān jiāo

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facing_heaven_pepper

        Do you or Suanne know of a local retail source? I would love to know. I’ve been looking for it for a while now.

        BTW…I went to Hot Luck yesterday. I only had two dishes (the chicken dish and pigs ear in garlic-chili sauce)…so far it’s a qualified Thumbs Up! I have to work through the rest of the menu to see if it is a worthy alternative to Crystal Mall’s branch of S&W Pepper House in terms of authentic Sichuan flavours. Since Hot Luck is more of a Hotpot place, the selection of Sichuan classics is smaller.

        1. Ben

          Hi fmed: Thanks for the clarification! I went to S&W in Crystal Mall and totally enjoyed the lamb cumin with rice. Unfortunately that place is so small or else this would be the perfect place for our 8GTCC’s Sichuan cuisine. Suanne does not know where to get the Heaven Facing Peppers unfortunately.

  12. Wendy

    Hey Ben, in Cantonese it would be “maa lat yau wat”. Not sure for Mandarin tho!

    1. Ben

      Thanks Dylan and Wendy … I still don’t know what that means. LOL! Never mind …

      1. DylanK

        Wendy’s Spicy Seduction is a good enough translation. But it leaves out the má 麻 of the málà 麻辣, the má being “that weird tingling and numbing sensation,” you mentioned.

        1. LotusRapper

          There’s 辣, and then there’s 麻辣. While there’s no quantifiable, standardized threshold between the two, I would arbitrarily assign 3 stars to a typical 辣 dish and 4-5 stars to 麻辣.

  13. Opus

    Sichuanese dishes are relatively tame in terms of hotness compared to Hunanese dishes, because in Hunan they use fresh, rather than dried chili for cooking.

  14. grayelf

    Hey Opus, that is interesting to me. I thought that Hunan was hotter because of using vinegar to “carry” the spiciness in so many dishes — hadn’t occurred to me that it was the prep of the chile. I’ve also found Hunan food (so far) to be less oily than Sichuan cooking, so for me a bit more palatable. But definitely hotter — I didn’t even break a sweat at recent feeds at the Richmond and Burnaby S&W’s, whereas my (sadly) only trip to Alvin Garden had me tying the proverbial bandana around my head but in a good way.

    1. fmed

      My own take on it is:

      -Sichuan cuisine tends to use dried peppers – which are then infused by frying in oil. More often than not, the actual peppers are not eaten. (Capsiacin – the active ingredient in peppers is soluble in oil, and not soluble in water.)

      -Sichuan cuisine uses Sichuan peppercorns which tend to numb the palate (thus increasing tolerance to the chilies)

      -Hunan cuisine tends to use pickled and fresh peppers. The actual peppers are meant to be eaten…I know I tend to eat the peppers…so I get more heat.

      -Acids tend to accentuate the heat…not really “carrying” the capsiacin, per se – but perhaps through some other physiological/chemical mechanism.

      $0.02

  15. DylanLK

    Fmed’s comparisons are right on, I think.

    But it’s hard to venture a straight up Hunan-Sichuan comparison.

    You know, as painful as it sounds, you could split both Hunan and Sichuan up into separate types of cuisine, and in-province comparisons. These places have populations and areas that rival most European countries– and they were writing down recipes while France and Germany were in the Dark Ages.

    I mean, the most basic example that comes to mind is: Sichuan food in Chengdu ain’t the same as Sichuan food in Chongqing. You’ll get a different twice-cooked pork in Chengdu than you will in Chongqing, ie. Chengdu one will have fermented bean paste, and bigger flavors from vinegar and sugar, while the Chongqing one will be bare bones but spicier.* Or compare representative dishes from the two cities: mapo doufu from Chengdu and, say, suan cai yu from Chongqing. I’m not an expert on this stuff but you get the idea.

    * If you can read Chinese or want to suffer through a Google Translate version, that example is from this article: http://www.huaxia.com/jxtf/bswh/00213260.html

  16. DylanLK

    The article deserves a better translation. So, here’s my own humble attempt. I just spent all day translating Yan Lianke stories, so I’m relatively burnt out and I glossed over a few things, but I hope it reads okay. (My notes are in the []s):

    My maternal grandmother’s house was in Guang’an, Sichuan. Guang’an is part of eastern Sichuan (Chuandong). Geographically and culturally, it’s close to Chongqing. I stayed there until I was a little older than three, which counts as being raised there. When it came time to go to elementary school, I was sent to Chongqing, and became a child of that city. After I turned 18, most of my time was spent outside of Chongqing, including four years in Chengdu. So, you could say that I’m a mixed up product of two cities: Chengdu and Chongqing.

    I spent more than a decade traveling around Sichuan. Sichuan has over a hundred counties and I’ve visited around half, and spent considerable time in a third of them. Chendu, prior to 1992, administrated 5 regions and 11 counties, and Chongqing oversaw 9 regions and 12 counties– I have spent lots of time in all of them.

    When I talk about a difference between Chongqing cuisine and Chengdu cuisine, someone from outside the province probably won’t understand. They’d say, Isn’t it all Sichuan food? To be honest, the two cuisines look about the same. The type of dishes that both cities make is about the same. But people from Sichuan know that there’s a huge difference. Chongqing food reminds one of the geography of the city: big mountains, big rivers. The food is like a big gulp of fresh mountain air. But Chengdu food calls to mind a traditional courtyard home set in a bamboo grove, with a small stream murmuring away in the background. Chengdu food is a beautiful daughter of a humble family. The appeal of Chengdu food seems to be hidden away inside. What do these differences mean? If you asked a chef from Chengdu and a chef from Chongqing to cook the same dish, the end result would be two very different dishes!

    For example, twice-cooked pork, that classic of Sichuan cooking. Chengdu twice-cooked pork is quite soft and spongey. It’s cooked with sugar, vinegar, chili peppers, and fermented flour paste. Everything is thrown into the mix. The result is mild but perfectly satisfactory. The Chongqing version, though, is flash fried, everything is crispy, and the end result is over-the-top and joyful. Although, a Sichuanese could tell the difference, it’s possible that an out-of-province visitor wouldn’t even notice.

    Chongqing people have a certain love of provocation. They say what’s on their mind. Chongqing chefs are the same. When people order in a restaurant, they don’t bother sticking to the menu, which is why so many innovative dishes come from Chongqing. And most of the new dishes coming from Chongqing are the inventions of chefs that didn’t receive any proper training.

    But Chengdu people tend to live a slightly more refined existence. They’re the petty bourgeoisie of the province. When a Chengdu person orders food in a restaurant, they order according to set rules of cuisine. The chefs in Chengdu don’t dare stray from the menu. When a chef in Chengdu cooks twice-cooked pork, every step must be followed closely, from choosing the meat to making the exact cut to adding ingredients to setting the heat on the stove. Every restaurant in Chengdu claims that their chef is a graduate of the Sichuan Culinary Institute. In Chengdu, dishes become more refined each time they are cooked; there are more rules to follow when preparing them; but they become better as time goes by.

    If a friend stopped by dressed in a suit and tie, I’d take him to a Chengdu restaurant. More refined. If a friend stopped by dressed for a good time, I’d take him to a Chongqing restaurant. Tastier.

    Chongqing innovations:

    Chongqing is a city that thrives on novelty. Since the 1980s, the city has been a proving ground for chefs. Those that couldn’t make the grade in Chongqing usually ended up migrating to Chengdu and further afield. But those that continued on the path of creation and innovation had fine careers in the city. These are ten dishes invented in Chongqing:

    — Chongqing hot pot. The history of Chongqing hot pot is quite long, but innovations never stopped. The dish began as the food of Yangtze River fishermen, boat trackers, and porters, but famous versions have included beef stomach hot pot, eel hot pot, seafood hot pot, fish head hot pot, lamb and dog meat hot pot, and lovers’ hot pot [ie. one side of the pot chili oil and the other side clear broth], etc.

    — Jiangjin-style fish with pickled cabbage (Jiangjin suan cai yu). This dish came from the Jiangjin area of Chongqing, from a roadside restaurant known as Brother Zhu’s. Taxi drivers came to eat at Brother Zhu’s restaurant and spread the popularity of the dish as they cruised around Chongqing. It began to be popular in 1988. I am quite good at making this dish.

    — Geleshan-style chicken with chilies. This dish came from Chongqing’s Shapingba area, a small town called Geleshan. The dish was first made by a chef at a roadside restaurant called Lin Zhongle. It began to be popular in 1990. The treat for restaurant customers was searching for pea-sized pieces of quick fried chicken inside a veritable mountain of chilies. The restaurant was fortunately located near a popular tourist site. I’m personally quite good at making it, too.

    — Beer duck. This dish is from the Nan’an area of Chongqing, from another roadside restaurant. The inventor said he was inspired by a dish from his native Guizhou. It began to be popular in 1992. The cooking method involves stewing a duck in a bottle’s worth of beer. The dish is served quite spicy. At the height of the restaurant’s popularity, they were cooking several thousand ducks a day. But the popularity of the place has faded with time.

    — Springwater chicken. This dish is also from the Nan’an area of Chongqing, from an urban village called Southern Hill. It became popular in 1993. The dish is basically a chicken, very efficiently killed, and then rapidly roasted. The time from killing the chicken to the dish being served cannot exceed five minutes. A street was named after this dish in the village of Southern Hill, and a Spring Water Chicken Day was proclaimed.

    — Tai’an fish. This dish is from Chongqing’s Tongnan County, from a town called Tai’an. Its popularity began in 1994. The popularity of the dish was also spread by taxi drivers in the city. Because of the skill required to prepare the dish, it never spread like the others on my list. But my wife is quite good at making it.

    — Hotpot fish. A dish from Chongqing’s Jiangbei neighborhood. Another dish that was spread by taxi drivers and their friends, beginning in 1996. This is another dish that’s cooked quick and violently. The chef grabs a big, fatty fish and transforms it into slices about the size of a hand. The slices are dunked in hot chili oil for just a second, until they come out glowing red. A group of people sit around a large iron wok, holding a bottle of beer in one hand and dunking fish slices with another. After the fish is eaten, vegetables and tofu are cooked in the broth.

    — Waterboiled fish (shuizhu yu). Basically, hot pot fish is the precursor of waterboiled fish. When the popularity of the above hot pot fish spread, customers on downtown Chongqing wanted to try it. But restaurants in the city didn’t have the space or equipment to prepare the deep iron pots of oil and broth. So, they bought smaller pots, used smaller flames and served smaller fish. They gave it the poetic name: waterboiled fish. But, personally, I don’t think it can ever match up to the experience of real hot pot fish with its big fish and fierce flame.

    — Spicy crab (xiangla xie). Most Chongqing dishes were created in the streets of Chongqing. This one isn’t quite the same, since the itinerant restaurateurs weren’t serving anything as high brow as seafood. This is a dish from the fancy restaurants of Chongqing. It became popular around 1996.

    — Pickled pepper bullfrog (paojiao niuwa). This began to be popular in 1996. It started with frog but there were also versions featuring squid. There was a series of pickled pepper dishes in this style. This dish is another from the more highbrow urban restaurants of Chongqing.

    — Duck stewed with pickled radish (suan luobo dun yazi). This dish uses a spectacularly sour pickled cabbage that isn’t available outside Sichuan. It’s usually pickled for six months, but the process can go on indefinitely. There are countless varieties of this dish. The pickled ingredient could be pickled cowpeas or pickled fiddlehead fern, and instead of duck, chicken or lamb might be stewed. It became popular in 1996.

    — Youting carp. [Not sure on how to translate this youting 邮亭, but I think it’s referring to the traditional term for couriers’ lodging, a small hut to sleep in while transporting mail between cities]. It became popular in 1997. The ingredients are countless. It must be eaten carefully. [Most vague entry on the list].

    — Wujiang fish. This dish is from Chongqing city’s Fuling district, a district that the Wujiang River runs through. The tributaries of this river are home to a vast variety of freshwater fish. The traditional form of the dish prizes the freshness of the fish, but in the city, most restaurants use farmed fish, so the most common fish to find in an urban version of Wujiang fish is catfish. It became popular in 1998.

    — Maoxuewang. This dish is from Chongqing’s Shapingba area, and the town of Ciqikou, a town that preserves a small slice of Chongqing’s ancient character. The dish uses maodu [a particular cow stomach], xue pian [slices of blood], and ya xue wang [duck blood as a fluid, I believe]. Its popularity began with laborers working at the wharf in Ciqikou. [Get the name now? MAO du, XUE pian, ya xue WANG: maoxuewang].

    The list above represents the most typical and most popular dishes created in Chongqing. The list could be expanded to include other dishes. [I’m losing steam, but the list is in the original article].

    For the most part, the dishes became popular with taxi drivers and their friends and then spread through the city. As the dishes became popular, it was almost like a strong wind blowing through the city, as everyone went crazy hunting down the hottest dish.

    These Chongqing creations have something in common. The majority came from itinerant chefs who had never received training. Their creations were popular hits. They were nothing like the frou-frou dishes of Chengdu. They have nothing in common with Chengdu’s tea-leaf and camphor smoked duck. The style of these dishes was lots of oil, lots of peppers (sometimes more peppers than edible food), big flame, big pot, big plate. When it came to eating the dishes, the style was equally rough and tumble. Look at springwater chicken: a big plate of chicken with the head, liver, neck all mixed up together. It’s not rare to find feathers stuck in there, too. The dish represents the outlaw spirit of the Chongqing people. They’re to the point and they say what they mean.

    1. Ben

      OMG! Dylan! Your translation has gotta be the looooooongest comment ever recorded on Chowtimes! My jaws dropped when I see all these comments from you, fmed, lotusrapper, etc. We got all the right people on the 8GTCC project for sure.

      1. DylanLK

        Ha, I hope it’s not toooo long. I think it’s cool because not much of this stuff is available in English.

        And… um… here’s the second part of the article, about Chongqing food. Next time you eat Sichuan food, you can ask if the chef is from Sichuan, then ask which part of Sichuan.

        PART 2

        Chengdu’s improvements:

        We can’t really talk about Chengdu’s innovations. The most famous Chengdu invention is Feng fish head, and even that is just an improvement on fish head hot pot. So, Chengdu dishes have never had the wild, sweeping popularity of other Sichuan dishes, such as Chongqing dishes, which spread rapidly while still maintaining their unique swagger. For example, waterboiled fish has even spread to Beijing. Even the northeastern-style restaurant on the bottom floor of my apartment building ceremoniously serves its own version of the dish. Chongqing dishes seem to spread like a bad cold.

        But Chengdu cuisine is a treasure house of classical Sichuan dishes. The best dishes have been constantly improved. Every element of the eating and cooking experience in Chengdu has been subject to constant tinkering, from selecting the best ingredients to honing cooking methods to restaurant service and management. This improvement isn’t the product of a single chef, but represents the character of the city’s people.

        Chengdu has been developing its food culture since the Han Dynasty. The cuisine reflects a long history of perfecting dishes and seeking to understand how to prepare them best. Li Bai (who was from a town 150 kilometers from Chengdu), that great poet who, with the moon and his shadow, formed a party of three drinkers, often staggered out into the streets of Chengdu. That could never have happened in Chongqing. Su Dongpo (from a town 80 kilometers south of Chengdu), a poet and culinarian, invented a famous pork dish named after himself. The dish required slow cooking over a low flame. In blood-drinking Chongqing, this sort of dish would never have been invented.

        In Chongqing, every restaurant is at about the same standard. Chefs take care to make dishes according to a set pattern. In Chongqing, when chefs cook twice-cooked pork, they might toss in dried tofu, or asparagus lettuce (wosun), or Chinese cabbage. Anyways, the chefs of Chongqing feel free to add whatever they feel necessary to the dish. The choice of ingredients is not incredibly important. But in Chengdu, the dish must have leek. If no leek is available that day, the restaurant won’t bother making twice-cooked pork.

        Chengdu customers and chefs are aware of the smallest details of even a simple stirfried dish, such as twice-cooked pork. A Chengdu chef could turn out a lengthy essay on the intricacies of the dish, and the art of its preparation would be passed down from master to apprentice. In Chongqing, a chef would summarize twice-cooked pork in four words: meat, chilies, bean paste. Everything else doesn’t matter. Even in the smallest restaurant in Chengdu, a plate of stirfried spinach is spectacular. If you wandered over the whole of the country, you’d never find its equal. In Chengdu, they say that stirfrying vegetables is very difficult. You couldn’t find anyone to agree with that statement in Chongqing. In Chongqing, they just don’t worry about the intricacies of cooking vegetables. I won’t even bother mentioning what a plate of stirfried vegetables is like in Beijing.

        When I was going to school in Chengdu, I would go to a small restaurant on the weekend for an order of shaobai (pork belly, bean sprouts, steamed). When I went inside, the place was usually empty, except for a shy Western Sichuan girl standing at the counter. She would creep over and, very quietly, ask what I wanted. I would usually ask for an order of shaobai, a bowl of rice, a bowl of soft tofu, and a bowl of pickled vegetables. The girl would creep back over to the desk and, after a short while, slowly bring my dishes to the tables. The shaobai was perfect, with each ingredient chosen perfectly. Everything was steamed to perfection. The rice was great, too. In Chengdu they have a special way of steaming rice in a wooden vat that gives it a particular fragrance. I could sit in the restaurant all day, feeling at peace, a bit like Li Bai drinking under the moon. But when I go out to eat in Chongqing, I always feel nervous in the fierce atmosphere of the city’s restaurants, an experience I imagine to be like eating a prison meal.

        I particularly love eating rice crust and pork slices (guoba roupian). What’s so great about slices of pork and rice crust together? Anyways, I loved a certain restaurant in Chengdu’s Anren area. The restaurant made the dish perfectly. The restaurant was quite small and right beside the road. The place was a traditional western Sichuan farm house, full of ancient flavor. The ingredients for the day’s cooking were all laid out on a big board near the kitchen. They looked as if they had been harvested right before I arrived. There was no menu. You simply chose from the array of ingredients.

        Their guoba roupian was perfect. They took such care in choose the dried bamboo shoots and wild mushrooms, which were the main flavor in the dish. A broth was made from those ingredients and poured into the claypot, after the pork and crispy rice cooked together. The rumble of the soup cooking on the hot claypot, and a beautiful odor, filled the room. I remember one time, in a spring rain, riding our bikes the sixty kilometers out to this farm house restaurant. Tucking into the dish after the long ride was indescribable. I repeated the trip three more times. Outside of Chengdu, there is no chance of eating the same way, because no one puts the time and care into cooking that a Chengdu chef does. The Chengdu chef has mastered exactly the texture of the rice crust, the tenderness of the pork, the taste of the soup. Even the way the dish is placed on the table seems to have been perfected.

        Therefore, comparing Chengdu and Chongqing is like comparing heaven and earth. With every dish they cook, a Chengdu chef is careful to ask, what goes into it? what kind of pot do I use? how hot should the flame be? how do I garnish the plate? how should the plate be placed on the tabled? how should the table be decorated? But in Chongqing, the food comes out mixed up on a big plate. The waitress carries it out of the kitchen with her thumb stuck in your soup. When you see that, you can imagine how the food was cooked.

        When you talk about Chengdu food, you are essentially talking about homestyle dishes and street food that has been refined for decades or centuries to its present state.

        Think about dishes such as Qingshi Bridge rice-flour sheets, or husband-and-wife lung slices (fuqi fei pian) from Tidu Lane, or even mapo doufu. All have benefited from the patient refining of multiple generations. It’s been said that Xuetao dried beancurd (Xuetao doufugan) is still being made based on a recipe handed down from the Tang Dynasty. It would take a month of solid eating to sample all of the generations-old dishes of the Chengdu streets. But the street food of Chongqing pales in comparison. Very few are from before the 1930s, and many were invented elsewhere, such as the tangyuan rice dumplings or the Hangzhou xiaolongbao. Because the inventions of Chongqing cuisine never stick around for long, the chefs of the city never pay much attention to refining them. They say that Brother Zhu, who invented suan cai yu, lived the high life for a few years, but is now back to to his 3-room roadside restaurant, waiting for the customers to come back again.

        1. fmed

          Well…I’m awestruck!

          Interesting note on maoxuewang as a contraction of the ingredient names. In my research, I found a more poetic English translation of “feathers, blood, and posterity”…is there anything to this?

          The article validated what I had known about Chengdu vs Chongqing cuisine. It has been described to me as: Chengdu is rustic & homestyle, and Chongqing is loose and quick.

          I know have an even closer look at my twice-cooked pork when I order it. So far, all the places I have eaten in Vancouver looks Chengdu style (softer vs hot-fried).

          Once again…whoa!

          1. DylanK

            That’s the literal translation of what each character means, and it fits. I think the dish needs a name that sounds like a death metal band.

  17. LotusRapper

    You’re a machine, Dylan ! And a damned good one at that.

  18. Joa

    After reading Dylank’s long long comments, I really want to find out where the Chef in Hotluck Restaurant was coming from, Chongqing or Chengdu? Who knows?

Leave a Reply