Sichuan Food Doesn't Have to Be Spicy, and This Arcadia Restaurant Wants to Prove It
Chengdu Impression, a chain of 30-odd restaurants and upscale hotels in China, opened its first U.S. location earlier this year in Arcadia. The restaurant serves Sichuan food, but it’s not the food most Angelenos associate with Sichuan restaurants.
In Los Angeles — and across the country — Sichuan (or Szechuan, sometimes) cuisine usually is associated with just two elements: spicy heat and Sichuan peppercorns, the latter of which deliver that famous numbing sensation that makes liquids taste a bit metallic and can become something of an obsession. In L.A. foodie circles, it’s a badge of honor to say you enjoy Sichuan food, that you can stand the outlandish heat, that you enjoy sweating your way through dinner and perhaps feeling ill afterward.
Eating till you hurt is part of what Dana Goodyear identified as masculine, performative eating in The New Yorker in 2012. Culturally, we’re moving away from that (though Sichuan Impression and Chengdu Taste are still popular) as we get more sophisticated about food, and L.A. gets more sophisticated about Chinese food in particular. So it’s the perfect time for Chengdu Impression to make its stateside appearance.
For reference, Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, which, depending on whether you include Tibet in China's borders, is right in the center or on the far eastern edge of China. The city has a world-class culinary culture, and in 2011 UNESCO declared it a "city of gastronomy."
Classic Sichuan dishes include kung pao, made with peanuts and dried chilies; mapo tofu, a dish of tofu and ground meat in a spicy, fermented bean paste–based sauce; hot pot; and dan dan mian, a noodle dish with a peanut and sesame sauce.
Chengdu Impression serves these dishes family-style, but if you're visiting for dinner, the tasting menu is the way to go. This is not a cheap night out, as the menu runs about $55 (it changes occasionally). Wine is available only by the bottle, and Opus One is not the most expensive selection; the prices run from $39 to about $500. The list includes the two wines Trump served to the president of China at their recent dinner in Florida, a distinction that is mentioned on the menu.
The prices here don't indicate a quietly elegant night out: On my visits, there have been children watching cartoons on tablets, sans headphones. But you're here for the food.
According to Chengdu Impression, there are “five flavors” of Sichuan cuisine: hot, numbing, sweet, savory and sour. The restaurant does an excellent job of educating diners on just how non-spicy Sichuan food can be — though the dishes that are meant to be spicy will still rock your world. The cold mushroom appetizer and the sea cucumber with minced pork knocked me right over. In fact, it could be argued that Chengdu Impression’s food is a little too far on the sweet side.
It's a worthwhile experiment, this restaurant that's striving to appeal to both mainland Chinese expats and native Angelenos, who are known for their adventurous palates. The food is good, especially anything with pork (the pork belly and pork bun courses on the tasting menu are highlights). The dan dan noodles are among the best in town (and not spicy!), and the pickles here are superior.
That famous panda dessert? It doesn't taste like much. But it is Instagram gold. The tasting menu will pay for itself in likes.
21 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia; (626) 462-9999.
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