Cheng Du Dances With Szechuan Flames

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Dan Dan Noodles (Photos by Steve Mosco)

The flavor profile of Chengdu, the capitol of China’s Sichuan Province, has been creeping westward for the better part of the last 20 years. Boiling over with Szechuan cuisine at its best, the city is the Far East’s cradle of fiery foods like hot pots—long hot peppers and cumin-crusted meats—and Long Island recently gained another authentically Szechuan-style Chinese restaurant with Cheng Du in Franklin Square.

Situated in an expansive space on bustling Hempstead Turnpike near Franklin Avenue, Cheng Du’s menu gathers selections from the Sichuan Province, while also reaching into other regions for tastes from Taiwan, Japan and Americanized Chinese food. It’s all part of a solid effort by the owners to cater to a wide spectrum of tastes, while also shining a spicy light on food that might be a tad adventurous for some eaters.

The 20-or-so items on the Americanized menu features all the favorites—General Tso’s Chicken, pepper steak, sweet and sour chicken, etc.—but with a talented kitchen staff possessing an obvious mastery of their craft, delving deeper into the rest of the menu is crucial. Chengdu-style means heat—that ethereal, other-worldly, mouth-numbing heat born of peppercorns, dried peppers and fermentation. And the restaurant’s Chengdu-style definitely conveys that philosophy.

First there’s all-encompassing hot pot. A bubbling cauldron of oils and peppers, served in a sizzling mini-wok with black mushrooms, bamboo shoots and plenty of peppercorns. Additional proteins are up to the eater and include pork, chicken, tofu, beef, fish, lamb, shrimp and pork intestines. Much of the same ingredients show up in another fiery option, the dry-pepper fried dishes and hot sauce flavor dishes.

Veggie dumplings

But a major standout on the Chengdu-style menu is the cumin flavor section, particularly the cumin-crusted beef stir fry with bell peppers, dry peppers, long hot peppers and onions. Even before tasting, the aromatic essence fully engulfs the senses from first whiff. The interesting thing about spicy food is the addictive nature of the burn—it’s truly a “hurts so good” scenario—and that certainly is the case with the cumin beef. The mouth goes numb, the brow begins to sweat and before you know it, you’ve completely devoured every morsel on the dish. And it’s not just the spiciness of the dish. The texture is exquisitely pleasing, as the cumin crust alters the structure of the meat and the peppers and onions maintain a satisfying crunch.

Transitioning into other regional cuisine, Cheng Du offers the Taiwanese Three Cup Chicken. Named for the traditional use of three cups of sauce (soy, rice wine and sesame oil) in the recipe, the dish is deeply flavorful and dotted with basil and whole cloves of garlic. Don’t be turned off by the those big garlic chunks—the cooking process renders the garlic soft and gentle, with a roasted butteriness that permeates the dish. Other Chef’s Special dishes include Lion Head Meatballs, Hot & Spicy Grilled Fish, honey walnut shrimp and braised pork belly.

Cheng Du also boasts an authentic dim sum menu with soup dumplings, Taiwanese buns, scallion pancakes and the absolute standout, the handmade dumplings. Painstakingly crafted by the chef, the sticky, doughy dumplings pockets of mouth-bliss with ingredients to match. The vegetable versions in particular came highly recommended by the chef and for good reason—for they contain much more than just the mushy cabbage you see at most Chinese establishments, opting instead for a variety of rough-chopped, fresh vegetables. It’s a time-consuming preparation that is well worth the wait.

And finally, the humble, yet impossibly grand, noodle. Cheng Du takes great care of its noodles with an array of cold and hot dishes, some spicy, some more restrained. The finest among them might be the Dan Dan Noodles with minced pork. Smooth with a peanut-forward spicy sauce, the noodles possess a silky and bouncy texture that is matched perfectly with the grit of the minced pork, while the taste is at once sweet, salty and savory, surrounded by an earthy umami.

There is also a respectable sushi menu that hits all the right notes without being overwhelmingly abundant in choices. There are regular and hand rolls, along with special rolls and sushi entrées. Meanwhile, the Monday through Friday lunch special is hard to beat with an array of options, all with choice of soup, for around $8.

Any write up for Cheng Du Chinese Restaurant would not be complete without a mention of the inventive cocktails—such as the Mulholland Drive, a twisted, mind-altering drink containing a secret blend of ingredients and named after the surrealist movie of the same name. Cheng Du also mixes cocktails like Blue Velvet, their take on a margarita, as well as the Red Turtle, a heady mix with campari.

Cheng Du is exactly the place if you want Chinese comfort food, but also want to step out of the white take out box and try something authentic.

Cheng Du Chinese Restaurant, 947-949 Hempstead Tpke., Franklin Square; 516-358-1603/1697; www.chengduny.com

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