“We’re here at Flushing’s oldest food court,” I tell my Chinatown tour guests as we stand outside the Golden Shopping Mall before descending the stairs to the gritty wonderland of regional Chinese food. “When I first came here, I had no idea what to order because everything was in Chinese,” I continue.
Once downstairs I point out Chen Du Tian Fu, noting that it has wonderful Sichuan food. Typically we forego the fiery fare at this stall in favor of Helen You’s Tianjin Dumpling House, which is a shame because Stall No. 31, downtown Flushing’s O.G. Sichuan street food specialist, is where a decade ago myself and many other non-Chinese speaking Chinese food nerds had our first experiences with Golden Shopping Mall thanks to a legendary Chowhound post by BrianS that translated the then all Chinese red and yellow wall menu. That translation ultimately led me to bring Chinese food expert and Sichuan food specialist Fuchsia Dunlop to Golden Mall in the summer of 2008.
“They’re speaking Sichuan dialect. I love it, Sichuan dialect is so lovely,” Dunlop exclaimed as we tucked into a plate of fu qi fei pian, a tangle of tendon, tripe, and beef bathed in chili oil singing with ma la flavor. In the ten years since my visit with Dunlop, Golden Shopping Mall has been discovered. Zimmern, Bourdain, the Times, even Mission Chinese Food’s Danny Bowien, who I once ran into dining there with his kitchen crew, have all taken a seat at the rickety stools.
Chen Du Tian Fu—whose Chinese name Cheng Du Tian Fu Xiao Chi—is perhaps best rendered as “Chengdu Snack Heaven” has remained a solo dining favorite of mine over the years, particularly for its Chengdu liang mian, cold noodles topped with chili pepper, Sichuan peppercorns, and a heap of crushed garlic.
Occasionally I would take tour groups there, but gradually it fell out of rotation partly because I was concerned that my guests couldn’t handle the spice level and partly because my now delicate digestive couldn’t handle it. All of this Sichuan avoidance vanished a couple of months ago when I had a solo Chinatown tour guest who showed me the book she’d picked up at Kitchen Arts & Letters the night before. I could barely contain my excitement when I saw it was Dunlop’s “Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper.”
At that moment I knew I’d be taking her to Chen Du Tian Fu and not just bypassing it in favor of Helen You’s wonderful dumplings. And that is exactly where we found ourselves at the end of the tour, ordering a plate of what was listed in English as “pork with garlic sauce,” but turns out to be the classic yu xiang rou si, or fish fragrant pork slivers, a dish extolled by Dunlop in her love letter to Sichuan. Thin bits of pork filled the plate along with what I first thought to be green noodles, the whole lot in aromatic red sauce. Sour and garlicky and lovely over rice, we couldn’t stop eating it even though we’d already munched our way through Chinatown for the better part of an afternoon. As for those green strands that I thought were noodles, I’m not sure if they were celery or some sort of gourd, but they provided a mellow counterpoint to the dish’s chili heat.
Just a few days ago I had yet another solo guest, a young Chinese-American man who’d just graduated from the University of North Carolina. “I really like Sichuan,” he said. So once more I found myself at the foot of the stairs in Sichuan. This time we were staring down a plate of shui zhu yu or water poached fish. The fillets languished in a fiery broth shot through with crushed dried chilies and a heap of Sichuan peppercorns, the whole lot crowned by a tangle of cilantro.
“There’s a saying in Chinese that eating spicy food opens up the appetite,” my guest said as we both dug heartily into the water poached fish. In the depths of the bowl we found cabbage and other vegetation and I found—or rediscovered—my love of Chen Du Tian Fu. As we polished off the bowl, I couldn’t help but notice the two giant bags of Sichuaan peppercorns sitting on the counter.
Since that tour I have taken two other groups to my favorite Sichuan hawker stand. We’ve enjoyed ma po tofu and cold noodles side by side as well as the excellent Zhong shui jiao, tender pork filled dumplings bathed with sweetened soy sauce and chili oil and crowned with a dab of garlic paste, which take their name from their inventor, one Zhong Xiesen.
There’s a lot of great Sichuan food in downtown Flushing these days, but there will only ever be one Chen Du Tian Fu. I’m glad I’m falling in love with it all over again.
Cheng Du Tian Fu, No. 31, Golden Shopping Mall, 41-28 Main St., Flushing