If you pay much attention to the state of Asian food in metro Phoenix, you probably know that the southeast Valley has become a destination for regional Chinese cooking. One of the latest additions to our small but swelling Chinese food scene is a Sichuan-styled spot called Chengdu Delight Chinese Cuisine. In hindsight, it seems a shame that it took this long for a restaurant with “Chengdu” in its name to make its way to the Valley. The capital city of Sichuan province, Chengdu is pretty much synonymous with the region’s polyglot, peppercorn-laced cuisine, a regional style that has lately conquered the food world — eaters from around the world fly to southwest China expressly to study and savor the complex, palate-tingling flavors of Sichuan-style cooking.
Chengdu Delight, lucky for us, is closer to home. It’s situated in a workaday strip mall near Alma School and Elliot roads, in a space that locals may remember as previously being home to another Chinese restaurant called Shangri-La. Chengdu Delight debuted in the space about 10 months ago, and it’s neither the first nor only place around town dedicated to Sichuan-style cooking. But it might be one of the most approachable — the spice factor is not nearly as fiery or lip-numbing as other Sichuan places you may know and love.
The restaurant makes a pleasant, even modestly grand first impression — it’s considerably more spacious than most strip-mall restaurants, but not so fussy that you wouldn’t hesitate to stop in for some quick takeout. From the small lobby, you cross over a short, decorative bridge, arched over a drained koi pond, which leads into the main dining room, where a baby grand piano on a dais gives the otherwise subdued decor a dash of refinement.
The best way to enjoy a meal at Chengdu Delight is with a group — four or five seems about the optimal number — so that you can grab one of the tables with a Lazy Susan, and sample as many dishes as your appetite, and budget, will allow. With something like 80 or so menu items, trying nearly everything is not a simple feat. Service is beyond accommodating — the staff will pack up some freshly made rice along with your leftovers, and requests to adjust heat levels are generally met with easy approval.
There is no wrong way to order, but the essential dish at Chengdu Delight may well be the hot pot, which, like Japanese shabu-shabu or fondue, is communal and generally a crowd-pleaser. This is a Sichuan staple, a dish that revolves around a scarlet-colored chile broth that bubbles and froths from a chafing dish like liquid-hot magma.
Hot pots are not presented in the traditional cook-it-yourself format, wherein you dip raw, pink slivers of meat into roiling hot liquid until they stiffen and cook. Here, all the ingredients have been stewed together for you, and served up hot and bubbly on a portable burner, so that your only task is to fish out the bits of meat, tofu, and veggies with your chopsticks. There are various configurations on the menu, but the default order is the so-called “spicy hot pot,” which features chicken, shrimp, and tofu simmering in the peppercorn-inflected broth. The chicken is extra-spongy and garlicky, the shrimp buttery and rich, and even the humble tofu is deliciously sluiced with rich, spicy chile sauce.
The chile broth is the unmistakable star of the dish, infusing everything it touches with notes of garlic, chile, and salt. The flavors are simple, yet together they become complex and rich. It should go without saying that the longer you let the bits of meat steep in the broth, the spicier and richer they get.
A spicy hot pot is great, but don’t overlook a delicacy like the Spicy Frog hot pot. The dish comes heaped with bite-size bundles of the delicate white meat — if you’ve never tried it, cooked frog meat is sort of a cross between moist, mild-tasting white fish and, what else, chicken. The bundles of meat are glazed in a very good, sticky, slightly sweet orange glaze, and you get a small ceramic plate on the side to collect the very fine, small amphibian bones.
A hot pot pairs nicely with any number of the restaurant’s selection of “cold appetizer” dishes, including a very good and refreshing garlic cucumber salad, or perhaps a dish of spicy pig ear. The offal here is wonderful — working through a bowl of chile-sluiced, thinly-sliced pig ears is about as easy as emptying a bowl of freshly made pasta. The paper-thin, nearly translucent ribbons of pig ear are denser, but pleasantly chewy and vaguely gelatinous, and the garlicky chile sauce is too good to resist.
Speaking of offal, if you love the stuff, the menu item described as “sizzling wok intestines” is a must-try. The dish is fried pig intestines, sliced into thin rings and flavored generously with salt and chile oil. Slightly chewy, yet crisp around the edges, the texture-rich rings make an easy and addictive snack.
A Sichuan staple like mapo tofu is also quite good. The slinky cubes of tofu are suspended in a bright red chile sauce, every silky glob delivering a small, salty blast of flavor. A spoonful of the tofu is almost as smooth and unctuous on the palate as melting butter.
You should probably also try the house lamb dish — a plate comes heaped with juicy, grizzled nuggets of very good, cumin-spiced meat. Every bite ripples with juicy, garlicky flavor.
Hot pots aside, though, there might not be a more flavorful bite on the Chengdu Delight menu than the spicy fried chicken, which is listed on the menu as chung ging spicy bone-in chicken. The deep-fried, bite-size nuggets are half-buried in a scarlet heap of fried dried chiles — the chiles are intended to infuse the meat with fragrance, and not designed to be eaten — and the chicken is extra-crispy, salty, and so good, it’s worth every bit of trouble it takes to wrest the meat from the small, jagged chicken bones.
A vegetable dish of sautéed tea tree mushrooms, meanwhile, is pleasantly hearty and rich. The long, noodle-like mushrooms are punctuated with grizzled shavings of salty, juicy pork, and the sweet funk of the mushroom wraps the meat in naturally deep, savory flavor. Another vegetable dish, spinach in garlic sauce, is soft and fragrant, the leafy plant cooked down to an aromatic, nicely seasoned muddle.
There is probably no better dish to round out a marathon eating feast at Chengdu Delight than with an order of the house fried Chinese rolls, which are served piping hot and bearing the unmistakable scent of freshly-fried dough. The rolls are akin to a soft doughnut, its doughy appeal heightened by a creamy, slightly sweet red bean paste center. It’s a splendid treat, pleasant enough to make even a sour day slightly more palatable. The check comes with a complimentary fortune cookie, but at that point in your meal, you probably don’t need to be told that another visit to Chengdu Delight is almost certainly in your near future.
Chengdu Delight Chinese Cuisine
2992 North Alma School Road #3, Chandler
Hours: Open daily 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
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Spicy pig ears $7.95
Spicy Frog hot pot $14.95
Sauteed mushrooms $10.95
Mapo tofu $8.95