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The New York Times

By DAVID CORCORAN

 

THE servers at Chengdu 1 are sweet and patient as can be, despite some uncertain English. But when you arrive at this modest Sichuan restaurant, in a faded shopping island on Pompton Avenue in Cedar Grove, you need to lay down the law about certain things.

 

Ask them nicely to take away the standard-issue greasy fried wonton noodles with the pale-orange cough syrup known as duck sauce, and bring you a plate of what the extended Chinese-American family at the next table is having: crunchy fried peanuts.

 

Plan to order the whole fish of the day — fried, steamed or braised with hot bean paste, you can’t go wrong — but be sure to ask the price. One recent night the fish was grouper, and though it was sensationally moist and meaty, the bill was a jaw-dropping $45. (On another visit it was sea bass, also splendid, at $25.)

 

Finally, do everything in your power to entice a visit from Ivy, the precocious 18-month-old heartbreaker whose father is Chengdu’s chef and owner, Liu Xiu Fang. The night of our first visit, Ivy stole shyly to our table, borrowed a fellow diner’s purse, and did an eyelash-batting turn around the table, like a fashion model on a runway.

 

Unlike the hundreds of interchangeable mid-market Chinese restaurants that dot the landscape like tree ear mushrooms, Chengdu 1 comes by its name honestly. Mr. Liu, 39, arrived in the United States 14 years ago from Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, and worked in restaurants in Manhattan and Queens before opening this one last February. (Because of the language barrier, I couldn’t learn the significance of the number 1; as far as I can tell, there’s no Chengdu 2, and the place is not related to the venerable, upscale Chengdu 46 in nearby Clifton.)

 

Mr. Liu says he and his staff cook everything in house (well, maybe not those wonton noodles), and the long menu bristles with uncompromisingly authentic Sichuan dishes, sometimes rendered in charmingly fractured English.

 

“Ox tongue, triple w. hot & pepper sauce,” beckons an appetizer. Triple tongue? Triple hot? Turns out the intended word is tripe. And while that part of the ox is an acquired taste that I hadn’t acquired, the dish won me over: a generous mound of translucent slices of meat in hot oil, with the chewy, surprisingly mild tripe making a perfect foil for the slightly soft tongue. Triple hot it was, but intriguingly so, the heat offset by cilantro and the paradoxically cooling properties of Sichuan peppercorns.

 

Other fine appetizers included dan dan noodles, whose chili sauce held a potent kick of spice and garlic; clear seafood soup, a sturdy broth with a bracing infusion of ginger; spicy baby wontons in a dark-brown sauce with chopped peanuts and hints of vinegar and anise; and cold spicy chicken, whose flavor (boosted with monosodium glutamate, we later learned) started out cool and slowly built in a salty, fiery crescendo.

Among entrees, the whole fish is pretty much obligatory, if you can afford it. Beyond that, the choices mount up bewilderingly.

 

There are standards like kung pao chicken (dull, oily) and lamb with pepper sauce (chewy, spicy, lamby, delicious). There are mildly exotic specialties like the chopped-meat-and-cellophane-noodle dish called ants climbing the tree (more titillating than interesting), ma-po tofu (elemental, satisfying) and tea-smoked duck (tender, forceful and memorable). And there are offal-based dishes with daunting names like “intestine rings on green onion fingers” and “pork blood cake with chives” (sorry, didn’t try them).

Off-putting as those last dishes may sound, it’s reassuring that they are there. They demonstrate that Chengdu 1 is the real thing, an island of authenticity in a sea of imitations — a restaurant as genuine and winning as the shy smile on a little girl’s face.

 

THE SPACE A boxy, brightly lighted 80-seat room, as nondescript as the strip mall it inhabits. Wheelchair accessible.

THE CROWD Casual, with Chinese-Americans well represented.

THE STAFF Efficient, pleasant and patient.

THE BAR Bring your own wine or beer.

THE BILL Entrees: $5.95 to $45. Lunch combinations: $5.95 to $6.55. All major credit cards accepted.

WHAT WE LIKE Dan dan noodles, ox tongue with tripe, spicy baby wontons, cold spicy chicken, clear seafood soup; shredded potatoes with green pepper, ma po tofu, lamb with pepper sauce, shrimp with yellow chives, tea-smoked duck, whole fish.

IF YOU GO Open daily. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Reservations recommended on weekends. Parking is abundant.

 

For more details, please visit link: http://events.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/23dinenj.html

 

 

Baristanet

by Melissa Rayworth

 

We've got good Asian food here in Baristaville: tangy Vietnamese, fiery Thai, mega-fresh Japanese. But until now, my hunger for truly authentic, mind-blowingly good Chinese food -- the kind served at Beijing's equivalent of a local diner, where low-level bureaucrats gobble steaming slices of meat drowned in hot red oil and swill a dizzying drink called Er Guo Tou on their lunch hour -- went wholly unsatisfied.

But my search has ended.

I've found Chengdu 1, an unassuming spot in Cedar Grove that serves the most authentic Chinese food I've had since my Chinese residence permit expired.

Granted, the name isn't exactly lyrical (and it's no relation to the upscale Chengdu 46 on Rte. 46 East). Chengdu 1 sounds like a take-out joint, and it resembles one from the outside. You'd never stop if someone didn't recommend it. It's tucked away in the Pilgrim Shopping Center next to Clearview Cinema 23 on Pompton Ave

But go. They've got a nice dining area decorated in the same schizophrenic style as most family restaurants in Beijing: large ceramic vases and leather banquettes, a huge, backlit picture of a Chinese park and one wall incongruously made of what appears to be white bathroom tile. Mr. Chow's it ain't, at least not glamour-wise. But you'll be too busy eating to notice.

When people ask my husband and me how we spent our years in China (2001-2004), we talk about the people we met, the food, our challenging work, the food, our antique-filled home and... well, the food. We reminisce almost daily about the strangely energizing flavor of Sichuan peppercorns, the unexpected texture of crisped-to-perfection shrimp tails dredged in salt and pepper, and the comforting scent of ridiculously fresh cilantro and garlic. We traveled China in search of tastes and fragrances. My husband once spent a weekend in Chengdu strictly for the purpose of eating spicy dumplings. A lot of spicy dumplings. So we're a tough audience.

But everything we've ordered so far at Chengdu 1 has been just right. And the family who runs it is lovely (their one-year-old daughter is a constant, smiling presence in the dining room). The menu offers dishes from all over China, so the standard American favorites are all there. But they specialize in spicy, flavor-packed traditional dishes: ma po tofu, shuizhu roupian (that translates to "water-boiled pork," but don't worry -- it's all about spicy oil and garlic), kung pao chicken and crispy dry-fried beef.

We've ordered off the menu and I suggest you do the same: Tell the waitstaff you're in their hands (and let them know if you're a fan of very spicy stuff) and trust their advice. On our last visit (we've been there four times in just over a month), they suggested we try something they called Dragon Beef, which reminded me of the "lion's head meatballs" I snacked on in Beijing. I'd also recommend having the string beans dry-fried, which gives them a great texture.

The place is also kid-friendly: A bit of noise is very much acceptable and there's plenty to please pre-school tastebuds. My almost-4-year-old loves the shrimp dumplings.

I'm really hoping this place catches on and survives. And if you go, I'm hoping you get a glimpse of the way people eat in Sichuan, where it's not uncommon for the standard greeting to be, "Did you eat yet?" instead of hello.

For more details, visit link: http://www.baristanet.com/food/2007/07/chengdu_1_can_y.php

NJ Dining: Chengdu1

I think that by now people realize that I love really spicy food. One of my favorite spicy cuisines is true Sichuan-syle Chinese food, which is characterized by its use of red fire oil (vegetable oil that is infused with red chile pepper essence) and the face-numbing Sichuan Peppercorn, also known as hua jiao (meaning flower pepper, as it resembles a tiny flower) or fagara.

While there are many restaurants in the greater New York metropolitan area with “Szechuan” in the name, the sad reality is that there are very, very few restaurants serving actual regional Sichuan cuisine, New York City included. There are  a few such restaurants  remaining in Manhattan, most notably being the midtown and uptown branches of Wu Liang Ye. Spicy and Tasty in Flushing, Queens is another good example. The much-loved Grand Sichuan International Midtown closed in April of ’07 but some of its sister (and inferior) branches remain.

So when it came to my attention (by way of an excellent post by Melissa Rayworth on the Montclair food blog Barista) that we in fact had the genuine article right here in Northern New Jersey, I knew we had to go.

 

Chengdu 1 is right down the road from Montclair State University on Pompton Ave, in the Pilgrim Shopping Plaza next to Clearview Cinema.

 

The main dining room. Chengdu 1 has a lot of older patrons who order American-Style Chinese food off the middle section of the menu (which looked pretty good, but we didn’t order any) because they used to go to the previous Chinese restaurant that inhabited the same space for many years. Don’t pay any attention to this — stay with the front section and the front interior part and the rear of the menu and anything in a section that says “Sichuan”.

 

For more details, visit link: http://offthebroiler.wordpress.com/2009/04/04/nj-dining-chengdu-1-updated/

 

Reviews on YELP: http://www.yelp.com/biz/chengdu-1-cedar-grove-2