The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled racism against Asians — especially Chinese — even here in SF, with one of the most populous Chinese populations outside the East Asian country since the 1800s.
After all, San Francisco is the city that popularized Chinese food in the Western world. Virtually unparalleled, except maybe by India and Mexico, Chinese cuisines is dramatically different region-by-region. Additionally, given a globally removed country like China, we either mostly see Westernized versions or merely a few dishes out of hundreds that make up a regional category.
In November, that now distant world pre-COVID-19, I was privileged to visit Chengdu, the heart and home of Szechuan/Sichuan food, which most of the world thinks is merely spicy and numbing but is actually a complex cuisine of 24 base flavors alone. My digestible research, from family-style restaurants to hole-in-the-wall noodle shops, was guided by some of the region’s best chefs and palates.
At Bob Cut, we especially want to support our Chinese friends and neighbors now and are grateful for local Asian American heroes.
Delivery/takeout is a small but heartfelt gesture of support. Supporting our local small businesses — and our rich Chinese roots and population — is an act of solidarity, and pleasure, when you know where to go. As with most Chinese restaurants (or anywhere with an extensive menu), ordering the right dishes is crucial as some can be excellent, some downright bad.
A few Sichuan favorites:
A favorite SF Sichuan spot has long been Chili House in the Inner Richmond — where Sichuan’s red chile oil/douban side shines (douban is a bean paste, one of the most crucial elements to building Sichuan flavors). In normal times, occasionally on weekends, you’d catch a Sichuanese tea master performance, complete with long pours and masks.
Order This: Dish highlights include their spicy chile wontons, tan-tan noodles, mian pi noodles, and cooked live fish in flaming chile oil. They even cook fish filets in the tough-to-find green peppercorn chile oil.
The sweet staff at Sichuan Home, a Michelin Bib Gourmand recommend, have been keeping it real in the humble space since 2011. Fish (usually cod) with pickled cabbage and mustard greens hits subtly-but-hard with chile heat but is bright, acidic, and vibrant.
Order This: Besides the fish, they do right by garlic eggplant and chef’s special chicken, even if their dan dan noodles are a bit of letdown.
Palette Tea House
Elegant dim sum destination, Palette Tea House in Ghirardelli Square, starts with a painter’s palette of dipping sauces, their Sichuan sauce being a lesson in proper spicy-numbing balance.
Order This: Their dim sum, seafood, and noodle dishes shine but on the Sichuan side, they do mapo tofu with their superb Sichuan sauce (douban, red chile oil).
The original Spices location is a Taiwanese-Sichuan mash-up but serves the Sichuan likes of thinly-sliced beef tendon and mapo tofu.
Order This: Thinly-sliced beef tendon, mapo tofu, hot & sour soup, tan-tan noodles.
Z & Y Restaurant
Z & Y Restaurant serves other dishes beyond Sichuan but was the first Sichuan restaurant in SF helmed by the former executive chef of SF’s Chinese Consulate-General. Z&Y is also a Michelin Bib Gourmand recommend with a newer “Asian fusion” restaurant, Z&Y Bistro, also doing delivery/takeout and best with its Sichuan dishes.
Order This: Try Sichuan rarities like ox tripe in green peppercorns or tiger skin peppers; chicken with “explosive” chile peppers.
Thanks to our vibrant Chinese population for feeding us so well and authentically from your familial heritage. When this ordeal is past, I’ll see you at the Sichuan table. In the meantime, cheers from our home to yours — over a bowl of mapo tofu.
// Read more about my adventures in China and about Sichuan’s cuisine 24 base flavors on The Perfect Spot. Feature photo by Mae Mu.