A recent essay in The New York Times Magazine describes the author's pursuit of the twenty-three distinct flavors of Sichuan cuisine from New York to Los Angeles. He doesn’t mention any New Jersey restaurants, but the “Sichuan trail” has a Garden State branch. Take a short trip along Route 23 (coincidence?) from Cedar Grove to Wayne, and you can sample classic Sichuan dishes like Dan Dan Noodles, Ma Po Tofu, and Ants Climbing a Tree right here in Jersey.
In an unassuming strip mall next to a vacant cineplex, Cedar Grove’s Chengdu 1 (89 Pompton Avenue, 973-239-7726) may be making the best Sichuan (aka Szechuan) food in the Garden State. Fiery Spicy Baby Wontons float in red chili oil infused with Sichuan peppercorns. Translucent noodles dotted with ground pork (Ants Climbing a Tree) are tricky to eat with chopsticks, but worth the effort. I am not a fan of tofu, but I couldn’t stop eating the spicy, creamy Ma Po Tofu. The Spicy Meat Bun are spicy soup dumplings that deliver a burst of pure heat – both spice and temperature – in a size you can easily pop in you mouth. Salted & Pepper Spareribs and Shredded Duck with Szechuan Flavor are excellent, less spicy options. Take some time reading the 280 items on Chengdu 1's menu and you can find items that are not always translated into English on most Chinese menus: Frog Meat with Yellow Chives, Pig’s Intestine in Spicy Fine Pot; and OX Tongue, Tripe w. Hot & Pepper Sauce. If you are adventurous with offal, the Hot & Spicy Pig’s Kidney is a surprisingly tasty cold salad.
Chengdu 1 features a spacious, family-friendly dining room with many large tables. The servers’ English is limited, but the staff is friendly and well-intentioned. Be patient. Service can be a bit haphazard, dishes arriving randomly whenever they are ready.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in Southwestern China, is a popular name for restaurants serving Sichuan cuisine. Continue five miles north on Pompton Avenue (Route 23) to the edge of the Willowbrook Mall to find Cheng Du 23 (6 Willowbrook Boulevard, Wayne, NJ, 973-812-2800), another Jersey Sichuan stand out.
Cheng Du 23′s extensive menu includes some familiar Cantonese dishes but features Sichuan cuisine like Tea Smoked Duck and a lip-smacking plate of cumin dusted sliced lamb sauteed with with dried chili. Steamed Juice Bun (soup dumplings) are large and chewy, with a burst of hot broth inside (though not as spicy as the Spicy Meat Bun at Chengdu 1). Ants Climbing a Tree are nicely flavored, but the cellophane noodles were a bit soggy. Jumbo shrimp with lobster sauce is a flavorful, non-spicy, option.
Also almost hidden in the corner of a strip mall, Cheng Du 23′s mirrored dining room is much larger than you might expect looking at the entrance from the outside. Service is enthusiastic and friendly, with plenty of suggestions for those new to Sichuan food.
Which Jersey Chengdu is better? Unlike Clifton's Chengdu 46, which serves upscale, overwhelmingly non-Chinese diners, many Chinese customers fill the tables at both Chengdu 1 and Cheng Du 23, and prices are reasonable. You will eat well at either, but I give the nod to Chengdu 1, where the flavors are more distinct (and powerful), and the dishes have more character. Whichever you choose, spice up your next Chinese meal on New Jersey's Sichuan highway.
To find more of New Jersey's best Chinese food, visit EthnicNJ.com.