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Chengdu 1: Can You Take The Heat?

20070414_chengdu_first_image_2 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.

20070414_chengdu_second_imageGranted, 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. -- Melissa Rayworth

Chengdu 1, 89 Pompton Ave (Pilgrim Shopping Plaza), Cedar Grove, 973-239-7726

Photos: Ted Anthony

April 28, 2007


Man, that movie theater is dead. They needed a renovation in 1989.

Posted by: Anonymous | Apr 28, 2007 6:02:37 PM

Go to the Pilgrim diner instead. One of the better "Greek" diners around ...

Posted by: Anonymous | Apr 28, 2007 6:04:54 PM

Yes. This place is amazing, I'm glad to see it getting some press. I've been combing NYC's Chinatown for the real Sichuan, and this place is better than anything I've found. They don't over do the wild peppercorn oil, either (which can start to taste like kerosene when overused..)
The pork kidney dishes are especially worth trying, especially if you haven't experienced the surprisingly delicate and tender treatment that they get in Sichuan cooking. The Ma Po Tofu is among the best I've had. The "turnip" soup is perhaps best to avoid unless you enjoy pork fat, but the "pork and pickled cabbage" soup is great, and by itself is one of my favorite light meals for one. Important note: hot means hot at this place. A dish called "Spicy Fish"... well, ok, maybe I should have seen it coming, but wow. Really good, but wow. I'm ok now, though.

Posted by: Michael | Apr 28, 2007 6:53:53 PM

Wow! This really is awonderful and authentic Szechuan restaurant (we didn't order anything not spicy)! We've never eaten such fabulous Szechuan in NJ: it rivals Flushing! I thought the pork with fresh garlic appetizer is one of the things I would order for a last meal and my husband and son felt that way about the whole fish in bean paste.

The only caveat is that the whole fish in bean paste special is really special, however, at $25.00 it is significanty more than the other dishes and that fact was not mentioned when it was strongly suggested that we order it. It was worth it though.

Posted by: Wally | Apr 28, 2007 8:30:29 PM

Can't wait to try this, sounds great. I've been waiting a long time for a non-Cantonese Chinese restaurant to appear in the Baristaville area.

Posted by: Miss Martta | Apr 28, 2007 8:37:33 PM

So I guess this is not the place in which to order Shrimp Chow Mein?

I've always been reluctant to try a really "authentic" Chinese (or almost any other Asian) restaurant because I have no idea what anything is, or what's in the food, or even how hot and spicy it is (for the record, I don't like hot n'spicy, at least in my food). And I'm totally clueless over the differences between Szechuan, Hunan, Cantonese, and and whatever else other Chinese cuisines there are.

So what here would be good for a newbie like me to get my feet, er, tongue wet (remember, not spicy!)?

Posted by: Pork Roll | Apr 28, 2007 10:21:14 PM

who is Melissa Rayworth?

Posted by: Confused Citizen® | Apr 28, 2007 11:45:35 PM

Is this restaurant affiliated with Chengdu 46 in Clifton?

Posted by: BitPusher | Apr 29, 2007 8:20:20 AM

A quick and dirty answer to Pork Roll regarding the different types of Chinese cooing:

Cantonese: fresh ingredients, cooked quickly, very lightly seasoned.

Szechuan: Strong peppery flavor, oily, brown. The Szechuan pepper, which is used extensively, is not a true pepper and causes what feels like a metaic exposion in the mouth. It is heavier than Canotnese

Hot and spicy, when done really well, causes the hairs at the back of the neck to be wet. It is painful pleasure: much like a roller coaster ride or an excellent horror movie.

Hunam cooking doesn't use the Szechuan pepper as much, does use a lot of lamb and is also spicy.

Fukien is mainly seafood.

That is the end of my specialized knowledge, such as it is. I love spicy food of any nationality.

Posted by: Wally | Apr 29, 2007 9:17:21 AM

Melissa Rayworth is one of our writers and a Baristaville resident. I've picked up food twice since Melissa told me about Chengdu 1 and the place rocks. The Mongolian beef was really great. If you ask for stuff you want, that isn't on the menu, they can make it. I wanted salt and pepper squid and they did it, even though there was no squid on the takeout menu.

Posted by: Liz | Apr 29, 2007 9:18:04 AM

Wow. We just had dinner at Chengdu and it was absolutely incredible. Not much to look at from the outside, and not some place we would have happened on, so THANK YOU, Baristanet.
We ordered from the special Sichuan menu, and had the lamb fillets in pepper sauce, the beef in special pepper sauce (I think) the dry-fried green beans, and the mini-dumplings. The lamb...oh, I'm going to dream of that lamb. Soupy, packed with spicy wonderfulness. The beef was dry, with crunchy garlic. It tasted of chinese 5 spice, but that description really does it a disfavor. The beans were crunchy, salty, slighly smoky, fresh. The dumplings were soft, spicy, swimming in chili oil.
This place is a sleeper. Go. go often.

Posted by: Brookdale | Apr 29, 2007 6:04:52 PM

Do they have a phone number?

Posted by: skeptic | May 1, 2007 11:40:57 AM

Excellent recommendation! Review was right on. Decor modest, food very well done. What a nice break from the usual over-additived Chinese fare.

Highly recommend you go if you enjoy really good Chinese food.

Posted by: Yummie! | May 1, 2007 2:53:44 PM

This place is the real mccoy. I go to many szechuan restaurants in NY city and am happy to find a place nearby that doesnt skimp on the spice. Some of my children like regular chinese and were quite satisfied with the offering. If you like spicy, dont miss it.

Posted by: dschwartz | May 6, 2007 8:16:02 PM

We moved to Cedar Grove in September and finally got around to hitting Chengdu about three weeks ago. Instant favorite ... nothing else compares. My fiancee has had many an authentic meal in Hong Kong and Tokyo, and if she's happy with the freshness of the ingredients and the heat of the spices, you know it's good. The spicy lamb with liberal flecks of pepper is only the beginning. Let's just say we put Chengdu on speed dial immediately!

Posted by: GG | May 7, 2007 6:20:55 AM

Went here Sunday and there is nothing like it in the Bergen-Essex area that I know. My wife had a mild chicken dish, I had the szechuan lamb with pepper sauce and my son had ma po fish, all very good. I thought the meat dumplings were a little doughy (much like every Chinese restaurant in the area) but the filling was very tasty. We also ordered five taste beef from the appetizer menu without knowing what it is and will not order it again. I'm sure it's authentic but not for us. It reminded me of a spicy corned beef with ribbons of fat through the meat.

Overall, we were happy with the food. Lot's of options.

Posted by: dc traveler | May 7, 2007 10:15:58 AM

Well, I finally got a chance to check it out with some friends and while the food was decent (I can't say it was the best Chinese I've ever had in NJ, but it was good), the service was HORRENDOUS!

It wasn't crowded (we got seated right away) but once we got our menus, the waitress disappeared for about 20 minutes. Then the food itself took about 30 minutes (we had to ask for chopsticks 3 times!) and our wait for check, another 15.

Like I said, it wasn't that crowded, there was no wait line, so I don't get it.

The menu is extensive and they are accommodating, offering brown rice and steamed entrees to those who ask. Our tea was flavorful but lukewarm. How hard is it to make hot tea?

Service is a big part of the dining experience for me so it will be a long time before I go back.

Posted by: Miss Martta | May 12, 2007 6:07:18 AM

I have to agree with Ms Martta - after reading rave reviews on this site, we went with friends Friday last; food was OK, but service was DREADFUL.

In the meantime, does anyone know where one can get nice, LIGHT steamed vegetable dumplings, served with choice of ginger,vinegar,chopped jalapenos, & sesame oil?

Posted by: kv450 | May 13, 2007 10:10:03 PM

Would not exactly call this place amazing it was ok do not think I would go back try China Gourmet in West Orange much better. Went to the restroom and wanted to run out of there. Food not that great!

Posted by: CA | May 14, 2007 1:42:58 PM

Would not exactly call this place amazing it was ok do not think I would go back try China Gourmet in West Orange much better. Went to the restroom and wanted to run out of there. Food not that great!

Posted by: CA | May 14, 2007 1:43:44 PM

Thanks Melissa for such an excellent restaurant suggestion!


Posted by: Jason Perlow | May 20, 2007 2:08:52 PM

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