September 27, 2018 | Arts and Culture
that chengdu feeling
providence’s chinatown is in pawtucket
If you are in Providence and haven’t made the light trek to Chengdu Taste, you should tonight. Somebody must know somebody with a car. Or I can drive you in my hot new sports car: my grandparents’ Subaru.
Except for the poke place and the ramen shop that specialize in just one thing, College Hill is home to Chinese restaurants that are also a touch Korean, and often carry sushi. See: PF Chang’s and Shanghai on Thayer (RIP).
Regional Indian food has yet to hit PVD, but there are new spots opening up that fight this notion of pan-cuisine. On Wickenden street, you’ll find Jahunger, a Uyghur restaurant—the northwest region of China with a Muslim cooking influence on the food. Their hand-pulled noodles are mixed with braised lamb and spiked with cumin and other aromatics. Raisins and yogurt complement a rice dish there, making something that sits between a biryani and beef fried rice. Right across the street, Chong Qing House opened up in the space formerly occupied by Tokyo, a Japanese place with Chinese-American specialties on the menu. The Tokyo letterhead is still on the awning, but inside, you’ll find sauteed pea shoots and mouth-numbing dan dan noodles. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with creating a (discombobulated) menu of dishes that everyone enjoys, but if you are seeking out more traditional, regional Chinese food in Providence, now’s the time. There’s always been Chengdu, though.
The OG and best Rhode Island Chinese restaurant, Chengdu Taste, is a tiny, pink and red lit restaurant in Pawtucket that specializes in Szechuan food, often featuring frog legs or crawfish on their specials menu. You’ll run into professors, restaurant owners, and all food-loving people in the just-about-25-seat restaurant. There’s often a line of people picking up food to go as well.
I first found out about Chengdu Taste via word of mouth after complaining about missing Ma Po Tofu from the Szechuan place across the street from my parents’ apartment in New York. At Chengdu, Ma Po Tofu is a menu highlight, prepared authentically and spicily with big slices of scallion and none of the added extra stuff like diced carrots they throw in at other PVD spots. The Szechuan peppercorn-spiked sauce envelops silky tofu pieces.
The things you won’t find on most Chinese menus are the things you should go for. First thing on the table at Chengdu is always their mouth-tingling pickled vegetables. It’s hard to not kill these off in under a minute—the flavor is complex and addictive. Order the greens alongside. Sauteed water spinach, pea shoots, Chinese broccoli, or whatever. The special is made with whole, soft-cooked garlic cloves and just a ladle full of chicken broth.
You can add anything to your table. The meat, seafood, and vegetables are equally thoughtful and the Szechuan flavors meld on your plate. I recommend the fish stew. Slices of tender white fish and cooked but still crisp cabbage bathe in a rich red sauce, flecked with orange chili oil and doused with spices and chili flakes. Even the rice you eat with it is better than other rice. I’m not sure how to describe why, but you’ll know when you eat it.
There’s also a dish of stir-fried sliced beef and shishito peppers. It seems simple on the surface, but packs flavors you wouldn’t expect. The peppers are hotter than usual and julienned into slivers that match the size of the tender, salty meat that is still pink in the middle, even though the slices are about as wide as linguine.
Dan dan noodles come chewy and seemingly undressed, but when you toss the dish into the fatty, tangy sauce of ground pork and Szechuan peppercorn, it turns into this mouth-numbing treat. You can’t help but go back for another bite, out of curiosity, joy, and surprise.
Additionally, you can order frog legs if that’s your thing, and my friend swears by the prawns. I’m convinced that anything on this menu will be delicious. Order with your own whims and tastes. If you love Chinese food, you can’t go wrong here.
Restaurant Info: Chengdu Taste
Address: 701 Main St., Pawtucket, RI 02860
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Cost: $30 a person (if you’re prone to over-ordering like I am)