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May 3rd, 2012

Doing my homework #4: Hurry up and wait

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To understand the food topography of a new city I go to dianping.com. According to the stats, Chengdu has over 4000 restaurants labeled 'Sichuanese'. This does not include almost 3000 hotpots. Snack food with all its noodles, marinades, things-on-a-stick, dumplings and cold rabbit chunks is in its own 5000+ category. Add 600+ roasting stalls (probably, 10% of the actual number since the majority of small and mobile 'skeweries' remain unreported). And for each listed restaurant on a busy street there are several small eateries (three-four tables, kitchen in the closet) that whip up cheap chef's specials for the residents who never go to dianping to report their neighborhood gems.

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Chengdu people are spoiled for choice. And yet, with all this fierce competition, there are hundreds of famous restaurants where crowds wait for hours to get in. Such establishments have raving reviews and high ratings. Here's a sampling of modern culinary legends:

Zigong Delights 自贡好吃客
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Waiting time: over 2 hours. Waiting area: edge of the hedge.
Our first visit to this splendid chain was less dramatic. This time, when our number struck, we ordered the frog in a pot again but asked to make it extra spicy. The waiter pleaded with us: 'Some people cannot take it so hot.' 'Don't take us for laowai', we threatened. She gave up. The broth burned to ashes everything that touched its surface. Each bite required downing a glass of icy beer. This was the singularly hottest experience we've had in China (and regretfully so). Bleary-eyed, dazed and starved we stumbled into the street. (Later, one of us collapsed with a week-long fever.)

Pot Pot Fragrance 锅锅香
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Waiting time: 30+ minutes. Waiting area: plastic stools outdoors. Perks: tea and sunflower seeds.
Never before have we lived two floors above Chengdu's most popular dry-pot restaurant. It was worth it, if only for the privilege of watching the staff perform team-building exercises, dance in circles and massage each others' shoulders every day at 5 pm. Their 'pot of the pots' – shamelessly populist surf-and-turf dish – stirred up a debate whether it was moral to abandon oneself in the enjoyment of grease, ribs and shrimps. And rice cakes, corn and lotus root. And French fries. And peanuts.

Wang Mother Rabbit 王妈手撕
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Waiting time: under 20 minutes. Waiting area: queue at the serving window. Perks: watching the inside(s) of the rabbit.
If this was not a strictly takeaway affair the queue would stop the traffic. As it is, though, the business is clean and quick: they chop your rabbit, toss it with chilies and spices, wrap it in foil and bag it. Eat at home.

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The rabbit meat is dark, chewy, roasted to transparency, slathered in liquid smoke, spicy, yummy.

House of Fragrance and Crispness 闻酥园
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Living in Chengdu one quickly slips into a habit of frequenting tea houses and bringing a bag of sweets for tea. This popular bakery at Wenshu Monastery did all the Chinese pastry staples: chewy glutinous rice patties, bean paste buns, spongy breads wrapped in baked crusts, sunflower seed-sprinkled cookies... We only had a problem with the 'egg tart': inside the sweet flaky pastry there was, indeed, an egg yolk. Salted.

Bashu Hotpot 巴蜀大宅门火锅
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Waiting time: about an hour. Waiting area: benches in the parking lot. 
Rustic 'copper' cauldron, mounds of garlic in bowls of sesame oil and a bag of spices to rub it in – this was a mighty good hotpot. It taught us to love goose intestines (turned out, they are indistinguishable from flat and frilly noodles).

Qing Sister's Loach 情妹耙泥鳅
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Waiting time: under one hour. Waiting area: under TV's blasting Hong Kong horror movies
Qing Sister wanted to teach us to love the loach. But while one of us devoured loach science with mucho gusto, the other one proved resistant to its slippery charms.

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