Take a Dive: Chengdu Taste

It might not look like much on the outside, but Chengdu Taste has some of the best Chinese in town.

Dive joints, whether for drink or food, are classics for a reason. 

Maybe it's the Aesop fable-like virtue of "appearances can be deceiving" or the thrill of stumbling, sometimes literally, upon a hidden gem. 

Either way, Chengdu Taste in Pawtucket is a dive worth diving into. 

Unless you're in New York City or some other hot and poppin' culinary mecca, Chinese food usually means dumplings, kung pao beef, wonton soup, General Tso's, and heaping mounds of lo mein; all perfectly delicious in their own greasy, Americanized way (I'll never say no to a good pork dumpling) but not the real deal necessarily. 

And I don't mean to sound pretentious; it's just a simple truth. 

If you're looking to expand your palette and take a gander at some authentic Chinese (specifically, Szechaun) food, drive on over to Chengdu Taste. You'll have to keep your eyes peeled; it doesn't look like much on the outside. In fact, my boyfriend and I almost missed it. Located in an unassuming, white shingle house, the sign's miniscule type makes it near impossible to spot. But, since we are resilient folks, after picking up a six pack at a nearby liquor store (it's BYOB), we found our destination. 

We walked into the unassuming building, into an unassuming but cozy interior, plastic bag with six pack inside in tow. 

Dim pink lights cast a rosy glow, while a young girl sat at the table near the window on her phone, drinking an orange colored Thai Iced tea. Her mom sat down next to her, cooking apron on. Specials, scrawled in English and Mandarin on printing paper, were taped to the walls next to us. It is a familial atmosphere, a family restaurant.

A waiter quickly gave us two menus and a small plate of pickled vegetables. There were carrots and some sort of turnip, cabbage and maybe even kohlrabi, chopped into bite-size pieces with chili flecks speckling them. They were crunchy, sweet, sour and spicy; in a word, delicious. 

There was only one other group there besides us and while their loud conversation about weddings and roommate woes was distracting, I was able to focus enough to locate the most important section of the menu. 

Past the dumplings, General Tso's, lo meins and more, lies the section dubbed "Authentic Szechaun Cuisine."

I might have issued a quiet squeal upon discovering it. 

This is not your standard "Chinese" fair. We're talking dry sauteed pig intestine with dried red chili, prawns with spicy chili asparagus and minced pork, mapo tofu with minced pork, fried lamb with cumin and more. A diverse array of ingredients, textures and flavors, all happily marked by a red chili to denote "this will be spicy." 

After much internal debate (it all looked so good, but I was still rather full from lunch) we ordered the ma po tofu with minced pork and the prawns with spicy chili asparagus and minced pork, popped the tops off of our beers and waited. What felt like five seconds later, two steaming bowls of rice were set down, followed by two steaming plates of chili-laden deliciousness. 

Armed only with chopsticks and two serving spoons to serve ourselves, we dug in. 

It was a revelation. Ma po tofu is somewhat standard fair, but this iteration was taken to a chili-packed, holy mama cow spicy level. Silky cubes of tofu languidly swam in the chili sauce, broken up by small crumbles of pork. Mixed with rice, it was easily wolfed down.

But it was the prawns that truly won my heart. Expecting asparagus, I was treated to soft, bean pod-like pieces (which I later found out were asparagus beans; who knew?) mixed with succulent shrimp and crumbly pork. The sauce was indescribably good, perhaps a combination of chili, soy and something more (fish sauce?), pulling it all together. 

I struggled with my chopsticks, wanting to eat every single last sauce-coated grain of rice on my plate, and eventually resorted to barbarity: the serving spoon. But it was just too good to leave a single bite to scrap.

As we ate what we could, another group walked in. The little girl popped up off her seat, her apron wearing mom not far behind, and asked them if they would like something to drink. One man asked for a soda, and, unsure if they had it, she twiddled her thumbs before deciding, "I'll get you some nice tea and some water." 

Chuckles ensued, the little girl glowed and her mom smiled knowingly. 

We got our leftovers bagged, paid our bill and left, leaving a family restaurant where the food is spicy and brutally, deliciously authentic. 

I'll be back, Chengdu Taste.

Chengdu Taste, 701 Main St., Pawtucket, 729-5699, chengdutastepawtucket.com

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