Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Chengdu Gourmet in Squirrel Hill Brings the Heat

It is the optimum place to try authentic Sichuan dishes in one of the city’s culturally diverse neighborhoods.




photos by Heather Mull
 

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 are 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. 
 


Chongqing-style beef in hot, spicy broth is a star dish. Spoonful upon spoonful of chili flakes are layered atop a rich layer of chili oil. Below that is a brick-red broth that’s swimming with herbs, tofu, beef, cauliflower, lotus root, garlic and cabbage. It’s served so that the broth drains away when you spoon it onto your plate; do try to spoon some of that broth over your rice, but don’t try to eat it as a soup because it’s extremely hot — you’ll feel an energetic warmth from this dish for hours after. “This is a serious dish,” a well-traveled friend said while digging in for a third helping.

Another shui zhu (“water-cooked meat”) dish roughly translates to “perfumed fish” (think “aromatic” rather than “women’s fragrance”) and also is laced with fiery heat. “The color of this is seductive. It’s like an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ trap that you might fall into,” said another friend.

Flaky flounder and magnificent black mushroom caps float just under the deep ruby surface bobbing with two kinds of dry chili. Below lie surprises. Chewy clear noodles absorb the broth’s deep flavor. There are clusters of enoki mushrooms swimming like sea anemones. It wasn’t until we nearly were finished with the dish that we discovered
glorious potatoes that tasted both boiled and fried. 
 


Hand cabbage, with fine slivers of garlic, sesame oil and background floral notes, is a must-get. Chinese broccoli quick-fried in dried pepper also is very good. I love the deep flavor of the stems and the smoky char of the leaves. Sautéed water spinach isn’t much to look at, but the soft flavors are a nice balance to the hot dishes. 

When I was growing up in New York, Sunday nights were back and forth between Mandarin and Dynasty restaurants, but it didn’t really matter because what I ordered always was the same: wonton soup, egg roll, spare ribs, chicken and broccoli. For most of my life, that’s what I thought was representative of Chinese food.
 



Restaurants such as Chengdu Gourmet are changing what I crave when I want Chinese food. Sure, the décor — faded and plain carpet, white butcher paper over faded pink tablecloths, walls lined with photos of plated dishes intermingled with random accoutrements of plastic corn — isn’t much to look at, but I don’t really care. We’re lucky in Pittsburgh to have a chef of Wei Zhu’s talent and experience. If you haven’t yet been to Chengdu Gourmet, go. 


5840 Forward Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412/521-2088, chengdugourmetpittsburgh.com
 


Wei Zhu, Chef/Owner | Chengdu Gourmet

*Note: As Wei Zhu is not fluent in English, restaurant manager Zoe Zhou served as translator during this interview.

How long have you been in Pittsburgh, and what brought you here?  
I have been in Pittsburgh for seven years. The first time I came to Pittsburgh to work at Szechuan Gourmet of Murray Avenue. The second time I came here to visit my friends. I decided to stay because the weather was very similar to that in my hometown [Chengdu]. It made me feel comfortable in this city.

Are people in Pittsburgh accepting that you’re cooking genuine Sichuan cuisine?  
Most people like it, yes. A lot of people come here and are interested in trying something new. The biggest difference between Sichuan food and Western food is the spices. There are some people who complain that the food is too spicy, but overall people are open to it. I adapted the level of spiciness a little bit for people’s taste. I want my customers to be happy. You can ask if you want to have something more or less spicy.

When did you start cooking?  
When I graduated from middle school at 16, I started cooking. I’m 49 now, so I’ve been cooking for quite some time. My father was a baker, and I worked as a baker for [more than] two years. But I didn’t really like that work as much as I liked cooking. However, [the] baking industry and the cooking industry are separate, and at the time if you tried to move from one to the other, you needed permission from the government. I was able to get that permission and start cooking.

What are you favorite ingredients to work with?  
Pork, chicken, fish and beef. More than that, though, it depends on the customers. I want to cook what makes them happy. That’s the most important thing to me. Everyone should leave here satisfied.

What’s the best way to navigate the menu if you’re not familiar with Sichuan cuisine?  
The best way is to ask your server for help; that’s the first step. When I start cooking, I always look at the orders, too, and if I see some way that I can help make it a better experience, I’ll ask the servers to talk to the guest. Sometimes American guests will order an imbalanced meal, like three or four dishes of chicken, for example, and that’s not the best way to do it. We will help to make sure that your meal is very balanced.  
 

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Phantom Thread Is, Somehow, Both Unpleasant and Lovely

Reviews of "Phantom Thread," "Call Me By Your Name," "Den of Thieves" and new animated releases, plus local movie news and notes.

Nominate the Best! Pittsburgh Magazine's 2018 Readers' Poll

What is Pittsburgh's best breakfast joint? Dive bar? Yoga studio? Local singer? Meteorologist? It's time to nominate your local favorites in multiple categories.

Amazon Includes Pittsburgh in its Top-20 List for HQ2

The list of 20 was narrowed from 238 proposals Amazon received in October. So which other cities made the cut?

Restaurant Review: or, The Whale

The Downtown restaurant is a captivating, if costly, catch.

Celebrating 5 Pittsburghers Who Built Careers Behind the Bar

Pittsburgh is a city that celebrates its neighborhood bars. In some of those spots, second- and third-generation regulars are pulling up their stools to be served by someone who started pouring drinks decades ago.

Second Chances: Crossroads in the Kitchen

People working to overcome substance abuse problems and ex-offenders discover a welcoming environment in restaurant kitchens.

How to Pamper Yourself in Pittsburgh

Looking to beat the winter doldrums? We round up the best places and experiences for a little personal indulgence.

Miss Pusadee's Garden? We Have Some Good News.

The Tongdee family now operates Burgh Thai in Verona.

The Growing Popularity of Shooting a Clay Pigeon

Skeet shooting is taking off as a favored western Pennsylvania hobby.

Steelers' No. 1 Problem Makes Others Pale in Comparison

Until they solve it, the Steelers are more of a Fantasy League team than they are a Super Bowl team.

New series ‘$1’ to be filmed in Pittsburgh

The mystery thriller is latest to cash in on the city’s filming opportunities.

Andrew McCutchen: Thanks for the Memories

It's hard to overemphasize McCutchen's impact on the Pirates and its fan base.

How to Make a Mt. Washington Wedding Proposal Even Better

A lot of grooms-to-be propose on Mt. Washington. Not many decorate beforehand.

Bitter End’s Chicken Dinner Fundraiser

Chefs Becca Hegarty and Rick Easton to cook comfort food to help Hegarty’s mother.

Former Art Institute Housing to Be Converted into Condos

Downtown is booming as plans develop for yet another new apartment building.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Amazon Includes Pittsburgh in its Top-20 List for HQ2

Amazon Includes Pittsburgh in its Top-20 List for HQ2

The list of 20 was narrowed from 238 proposals Amazon received in October. So which other cities made the cut?

Comments

New series ‘$1’ to be filmed in Pittsburgh

New series ‘$1’ to be filmed in Pittsburgh

The mystery thriller is latest to cash in on the city’s filming opportunities.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Miss Pusadee's Garden? We Have Some Good News.

Miss Pusadee's Garden? We Have Some Good News.

The Tongdee family now operates Burgh Thai in Verona.

Comments

Bitter End’s Chicken Dinner Fundraiser

Bitter End’s Chicken Dinner Fundraiser

Chefs Becca Hegarty and Rick Easton to cook comfort food to help Hegarty’s mother.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Nominate the Best! Pittsburgh Magazine's 2018 Readers' Poll

Nominate the Best! Pittsburgh Magazine's 2018 Readers' Poll

What is Pittsburgh's best breakfast joint? Dive bar? Yoga studio? Local singer? Meteorologist? It's time to nominate your local favorites in multiple categories.

Comments

Best of the ‘Burgh Gift Guide for 2017

Best of the ‘Burgh Gift Guide for 2017

Here are some of our favorite ‘Burgh-inspired gifts for him, her, kids, foodies and more.

Comments


Tequila Cowboy: Fine For Some, Apparently a Bad Idea for Others

Tequila Cowboy: Fine For Some, Apparently a Bad Idea for Others

The bar, which hosted a bizarre incident involving a top Steelers coach, is fine enough for the post-collegiate set.

Comments

Five Essential January Events in Pittsburgh

Five Essential January Events in Pittsburgh

Country crooners, unsung pop icons, on-ice acrobatics and more winter warmers.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Steelers' No. 1 Problem Makes Others Pale in Comparison

Steelers' No. 1 Problem Makes Others Pale in Comparison

Until they solve it, the Steelers are more of a Fantasy League team than they are a Super Bowl team.

Comments

Steelers Must Avoid ‘Captain Ahab’ Approach to the Jaguars

Steelers Must Avoid ‘Captain Ahab’ Approach to the Jaguars

The Patriots are to the Steelers what Moby Dick was to Captain Ahab and that kind of obsession can backfire.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Phantom Thread Is, Somehow, Both Unpleasant and Lovely

Phantom Thread Is, Somehow, Both Unpleasant and Lovely

Reviews of "Phantom Thread," "Call Me By Your Name," "Den of Thieves" and new animated releases, plus local movie news and notes.

Comments

The Post is Quite Good, I, Tonya is Even Better

The Post is Quite Good, I, Tonya is Even Better

Reviews of "The Post," "I, Tonya" and "The Commuter," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
How to Make a Mt. Washington Wedding Proposal Even Better

How to Make a Mt. Washington Wedding Proposal Even Better

A lot of grooms-to-be propose on Mt. Washington. Not many decorate beforehand.

Comments

These Elaborate Proposals Were Sure to Get a “Yes”

These Elaborate Proposals Were Sure to Get a “Yes”

Thinking of popping the question? Take a note from these grooms-to-be who set the bar high.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Former Art Institute Housing to Be Converted into Condos

Former Art Institute Housing to Be Converted into Condos

Downtown is booming as plans develop for yet another new apartment building.

Comments

Lesson Learned: How Design Changed a North Allegheny Classroom

Lesson Learned: How Design Changed a North Allegheny Classroom

Frustrated by his sterile white classroom, teacher Greg Geibel earned an A+ from students when he transformed the space into something resembling a modern coffeehouse.

Comments