Thursday night Phil and I made good on our resolution to experience more of our favorite UNESCO gastronomical city. We decided we would walk towards some ganguo,干锅, (meat. vegetables potatoes stir fried in the literal translation of the dish, a dry pot) restaurants and see what was crowded with locals. We walked about 2 miles and probably could have eaten dinner on our way as we passed a couple pockets of street food. However, as luck would have it, we found exactly what we were looking for, a “fly restaurant” packed and bustling.
On a walk yesterday we decided here that restaurants in Chengdu can be divided into six categories:
1. The “fly” restaurant – family-owned restaurants serving up jiachang cai or home-style Sichuan dishes. These establishments are usually open air, accompanied by plastic stools, a couple tables and a kitchen in full view of the diners. In Chinese these restaurants are known as cangying guangzi, 苍蝇馆子, mostly because of their lack of hygiene. Our stop on Thursday was littered with bones and tissues on the floor. It is in these restaurants where you stray towards the one-time-use chopsticks. A Chinese colleague of mine attributed the fly as “in the olden times” you might find a fly or two in the restaurant. Olden times…right.
2. Hot pot – a Sichuan favorite comes in many different shapes and sizes (see our post about hot pot here). Within hot pot we include soup pot, frog pot, lamb pot, fish pot, duck pot, mao cai (keep your eyes open for a post on this), chuan chuan xiang (this one too) and most kinds of soup-based restaurants in town.
3. Street food/stall food – aka “food you eat standing up.” Back in the day you would probably be able to separate these two categories however in efforts to clean up the streets, many street vendors in Chengdu have moved to stalls or disappeared all together. Street food can offer up anything on roasted on a stick and much, much more. Stalls usually offer a variety of roasted meats, buns, breads, potato chips, nuts…you get the picture.
4. Banquet style Sichuan/Haute Sichuan Cuisine/Fancy pants Sichuan – There are a lot of these popping up in and around Chengdu catering to the growing wealthy class giving them yet another place to blow ridiculous amounts of money. For us, it is difficult when we’re used to paying between 20-40 RMB per person (3-6 USD) on some home-style food that is already delicious, we don’t really feel the need to bother with these restaurants. Phil and I need to muster up the courage and the capital to sample some of these establishments – stay tuned.
5. Middle of the road Sichuan – These places usually have heating/kitchen ventilation or doors that close. Actual furniture that can withhold foreign weight, usually wooden, with the potential attribution to one of the furniture dynasties (Qing or Ming, I find, are the most popular for furniture). A mixture of home-style cooking and fancy pants cooking ups the prices but often surprises dinners with innovations and rare styles of preparations or ingredients.
6. Everything else – Western food, Mediterranean food, Indian food, Korean food, Japanese food, all in varying degrees of quality exist here in Sichuan, although we don’t plan on writing about them that much. Also in this category goes other Chinese cuisines, which we hopefully will share. In here goes, Xinjiang, Dongbei, Hunan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Guandong and pretty much food from every other province in China.
We sat down at a table, causing a bit of a stir as two bundled up foreigners naturally do, and started to dissect the extensive Chinese-only menu. We looked around at the other tables to spot popular dishes, as foreigners with limited Chinese reading abilities naturally do. We settled on Chicken dry pot, sautéed bean sprout leaves (which is now in season and makes frequent vegetable appearances in our own cooking) and red-braised pork belly (which is technically a Hunan dish and is known to be Mao’s favorite).
The service wasn’t incredibly attentive because taking a foreigner’s order takes time, time that they didn’t have with 10 other packed tables. But once we ordered, Phil was able to take a couple shots to really capture the ambience of the place.
The food was good, although we’ve yet to have bad gangguo or bean sprouts, so that’s pretty safe. But what was more fun about this place was that afterwards, Phil snapped shots of the preparation stations and the kitchen itself. The staff was a bit friendlier as business had slowed as the evening got later and was more than receptive to our nosiness. This is one of the true beauties of the fly restaurant for foreigners like us – we can usually charm our way into the kitchen and get a glimpse of the wonders of Sichuan cooking.
Dinner for Thursday night was an open air restaurant on the corner of First Ring Rd. and Qunzhong Lu, near Jiuyanchao bridge.