The concentration of immigrant communities throughout the Greater Los Angeles area lends to biases formed about specific neighborhoods. For Korean food, it stands to reason one might head to Koreatown. For Sichuan cuisine, it’s generally accepted that the San Gabriel Valley is home to LA’s best. But this bias doesn’t always ring true, and Chengdu House — tucked away in a strip mall in Valley Village, and opened since this past May — is serving up Sichuan dishes that stand toe-to-toe with anything in the SGV.
Still, even a genuine Sichuan restaurant in the San Fernando Valley ought to come with different expectations from a top-tier place in SGV. Perusing briefly over Chengdu House’s four-month-old Yelp page reveals as much — most of the older reviews rave about the affordable lunch specials and takeout, while some of the more recent ones seem to have uncovered the restaurant’s expertise in Sichuan cuisine. Longtime restaurant veteran Gang Tian, who cooked at Le Chine Wok in Bel Air and Mid-City, hails from Chengdu and often manages the front of house.
Chengdu House looks like a pretty large Chinese restaurant in a strip mall shared with a liquor store advertising beer pong accessories on the signage. Enter, though, and it’s actually about a dozen, small wooden tables of mostly two-tops and four-tops in a space outfitted with cherry wood cabinetry and slick track lights.
By all appearances, Chengdu House is plenty capable of playing well-trod favorites that amount to a generic Chinese takeout menu. There’s Mongolian beef, orange chicken, and whatever else someone in need of a Panda Express replacement could possibly desire. The intrigue at Chengdu House, though, is in Gang Tian’s Sichuan food. Placed on a separate menu, this listing plays all the well-known hits of a different kind: Tea-smoked duck, cold pork bellies, spicy boiled fish in chili oil, lukewarm “mouth-watering chicken.”
Dry-fried string beans with ground chicken arrive, each long bean girthy, long and cooked to a savory bite with just a hint of peppercorn. Garlic pork bellies and blanched bean sprouts don’t disappoint, either, the lukewarm dish offering that great textural one-two punch of crunchy, grassy bean sprouts and fatty pork belly. Mabo tofu is great too, the heartiness of the just-a-tad-spicy gravy gently interrupted by silky cubes of custard-soft tofu.
If there’s one knock on the Sichuan cuisine at Chengdu House, it’s that the dishes in general lack the merciless heat of Nothingness (formerly Huolala) or Szechuan Impression in the SGV.
But is that really a knock on the restaurant? If anything, Chengdu House serves as a primer, of sorts, on Sichuan cuisine with just the right amount of mouth-numbing spice. Between the drive from The Valley to the San Gabriel Valley, and the screaming heat of restaurants like Szechuan Impression, Chengdu Taste, and Nothingness, eating at Chengdu House might be a relief for Valley locals in more ways than one.