There’s a saying about Sichuan cooking: yi cai yi ge, bai cai bai wei. Translation: “Each dish has its own style, a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors.”
Cheng Du, a one-year-old Chinese restaurant deep in West Broad Street’s strip-mall city, seems to take this number to heart. Its menu is more than 100 dishes long, and it’s rarely repetitive. Admittedly, one of my first feelings upon sliding into one of its red leather booths and opening the multipage booklet of food is straight-up anxiety. Where do I even begin?
Categorization is your friend here. Think of the menu as a spectrum. Right in the middle of the line is aromatic Sichuan fare full of mouth-numbing deliciousness. On one side, you have good old American Chinese standbys that are safe. On the other, you’ll find Sichuan comfort food and all the body parts associated with it: feet, necks, tendons, intestines, ears, pig kidney served three different ways and bullfrog.
It helps to be firm about a couple of things when ordering: the kind of meat you want and your spiciness threshold. The kitchen is good at executing those requests. From there, you can drill down. It doesn’t seem intentional, but not all of the staff is terribly helpful in describing the menu. But there’s one server who, on two of my visits, deciphers, describes and makes recommendations at length. Everyone is friendly and quick with water refills — which you’ll need, because dried red peppers are practically raining from the ceiling, scattered in whole and parts across appetizers and entrees. There is no rationing.
Cheng Du does Sichuan exactly right, particularly with its dry-pot dishes. Instead of beef and vegetables drowning in liquid, the portion is served in a colander to allow the sauce to drip off, hence the term dry. I try beef and duck (each $18) and the flavor is a delicate capture of smoky, salty, spicy and intensely savory — two Sichuan peppercorns shy of pungent.
The eggplant fries ($10) have a similar essence, and are thick-cut, soft in the middle and coated in a rich golden crisp. It’s an appetizer, but it’s huge. Another fried dish that catches my attention is Chongqing spicy chicken ($14). It’s similar to fried popcorn chicken, but heavy on the grease and breading, and one of the few dishes that seems like it ought to be a lot better than it is.
For moist heat, try the boiled fish in hot and spicy chili sauce ($15), served in a bowl as a stew. Topped with cilantro and scallions, there’s a hint of sweetness, and it’s one of the best dishes I try.
Also excellent is the baked tofu and peanut salad ($7) appetizer. It’s just a heap of those ingredients drizzled in chili sauce that makes my lips feel fuzzy in that awesome, painful, addictive way of Sichuan cuisine.
Don’t like it hot? No problem. There are extremely mild dishes here, too. The seafood delight over scorched rice ($20) is a cornucopia of flounder, shrimp and squid with vibrant vegetables. It’s cooked in white sauce and poured over a rice cracker that’s meant to snap, crackle and pop, but doesn’t this time. Nonetheless, it’s full of flavor without a bit of mouth numbing. The sweet and sour shrimp ($10) is fried and glossed in a cartoonish orange neon glaze, and is the best version of this classic I’ve had.
My favorite dish, which is listed as an appetizer but is sweet enough for dessert, is the pumpkin cake (two for $3). Pureed squash is blended with glutinous rice flour, stuffed with sweet bean paste, fried golden and coated in sesame seeds. I order it twice and would go back just for that, as well as the sweet and flaky baked roast pork croissant (three for $2.95). The latter is on the dim sum menu, which is available from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. It’s fun way to eat, with steaming carts and plates of snacky bites. The servers come by quickly and indecisiveness is not coddled, so be sure to study the menu to be ready.
When we think Sichuan, we think heat. Sure, yes. But a more accurate mark of Sichuan cuisine is the flavor dynamic. A variety of tastes — spicy, flowery, salty, sour, sweet, bitter, smoky — combine to make it authentic. Maybe you already know this if you’ve dined at Richmond’s other Sichuan haunt, the acclaimed Peter Chang China Cafe. Cheng Du is a formidable neighbor. S
9503-C W. Broad St.
Mondays–Sundays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.