Ordering mass quantities of food at Chengdu Gourmet in Squirrel Hill is a rather good idea. Gather a group of people dine family-style and dig into as many dishes as you can. There are multiple menus; the two that will be handed to you are a standardized American-Chinese menu and a menu with Sichuan specialties.
Cast aside the American menu. Instead, navigate through the hundreds of dishes on the Sichuan menu, plus the daily specials listed on the board out front. If you’re unfamiliar with Sichuan cuisine, it likely will take you a few visits to get a sense of what’s going on. This ongoing exposure to new flavors and textures is why I love Chengdu Gourmet so much. There’s much to learn from the 49-year-old Chef/Owner Wei Zhu, who moved to Pittsburgh from Chengdu, China, after spending time working in New York.
The Sichuan province is one of the largest in China, landlocked in the central part of the country. Chengdu, the capital, sits on a plateau high above sea level.
Mala — a combination of Sichuan peppercorns, the floral, mouth-numbing berry of the pepper ash tree, and dried chilies, plus aromatics such as garlic, ginger and chili-bean paste — is the cornerstone of Sichuan cuisine, but there is a wealth of flavors beyond that. The key, according to Zhu, is to balance your meal. He and his staff are happy to help you do that.
The dish you’re likely most familiar with on the Sichuan menu is the popular crossover Kung Pao chicken. This preparation is much less sugary than the Americanized version, with black vinegar providing both a hint of sweetness and a sharp backbone. It’s better than at most Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh, but there also are so many other terrific yet less familiar dishes to explore at Chengdu Gourmet.
The cumin lamb, the other Sichuan dish that’s become part of the popular canon, is excellent here. Lovely, large, soft slices of lamb are crusted with cumin and Sichuan peppercorns and served in a stir-fry of dried chili, garlic and green bell pepper. It’s a dish that speaks to the massive geography of the province, lamb and spice echoing the Silk Road-influenced Mongolia and China’s Muslim Uighur population.