Mark Rao, in a classic millennial move, lost his phone in an Uber. No wonder he didn't return my calls for our scheduled interview. So I went searching for him myself among the flying pandas and chili-fired noodles at Chengdu Famous Food, his new restaurant in Chinatown West.
What? Never heard of Chinatown West? Well, you've likely been there if you've visited the University of Pennsylvania or Drexel University lately, where a quiet but flavorful revolution has been taking place as a generation of more authentic, regionally inspired Chinese restaurants has opened to serve University City's growing population of international students. In fact, there are now more than twice the number Chinese and Taiwanese nationals at Penn (1,761) than there are in Chinatown itself (750). Add another 600-plus students at Drexel — including Rao, a 2015 grad — and you have an economic force that's already been credited with driving Chinatown's youthful makeover in the last few years, as many of that neighborhood's traditional Cantonese menus have been replaced with more stylish, trendy concepts tuned to Sichuan, hot pots, hand-drawn noodles, Shanghai, and now Taiwan.
It only makes sense that this same audience has begun transforming West Philly, too, where nearly a dozen restaurants have landed over the last few years: high-profile early entries Han Dynasty (still my favorite branch of the Sichuan chain) and Sang Kee, the dim sum and duck specialist; Xi'an Sizzling Woks, with its spice-dusted skewers and pita-lamb soup; the hot pots of Ochatto; and the Taiwanese fried chicken snacks (plus squid balls and salty froth-topped milk teas) of charming little Lulu Cafe. Dim Sum House, a sprawling second-floor sibling of Rittenhouse's Jane G's, is one of the most ambitious of the bunch, though two carelessly cooked, bland, and somewhat greasy meals there have left me disappointed. The most stylish project yet, the long-planned Danlu, a Taiwanese street-food palace from the big-money team behind Berwyn's Nectar, is still too new to assess. Stay tuned.
Just a little farther north in Powelton Village, meanwhile, I found Rao perched above the giant hungry panda feasting on noodles, skewers, and dumplings in the whimsical mural in Chengdu's dining room. He was standing on a hood vent above his open kitchen, taping cardboard over a leak from burst pipes in an upstairs apartment — and he was remarkably calm, considering it temporarily closed his restaurant for a few hours. But such is the DIY spirit of a project he began last year with some college buddies after a few too many tequila shots and tacos at Mission Taqueria. Happy hour, it seems, begat one of Philly's best new Sichuan kitchens.
Rao, a 23-year-old former finance major who was born in Sichuan but who decided to make a go of it in his adopted city, hired a former Jane G's chef, Jack Xue, a native of Chengdu. He then converted an old pizzeria into a lofty, open kitchen space with counter service and a casual young vibe where a room filled with mostly Asian students slurp their dandan noodles to the R&B and rap tunes of Future and the Weeknd. Rao's already planning an expansion into the Lancaster Avenue storefront next door, with a skewer and hot pot concept planned for spring.
"No one makes Sichuan food in Philly as authentic as ours," he said, in the grand bragging tradition of shrugging off the competition, pointing to Chengdu's lighter hand on sweet sesame paste in its dandan noodles, compared with other locals that he claims hew more to a richer Beijing style.
I'll leave the hairsplitting recipe analysis to other experts in Chinese regional cooking. Most intriguing to me is the fact that Chengdu's kitchen is less distinguished by the pure chili firepower of its plates as it is by the aromatic vividness of its dishes, which reveal a layering of other flavors, like saltiness and a fermented sour.
There's an extra cling and depth to the dark sauce that glosses the dumplings between orange puddles of chili oil. Other places too often simply drown the dumplings in a deep orange slick. The "Red Dragon" wontons come with a pool of volcano-red broth with a decidedly more brazen dose of spice — but, again, its biggest effect is aromatic, opening the senses to a nutty dusting of sesame, crunchy scallions, and the anise lift of ground Sichuan peppercorns. Even the cold dandan variation called "Chengdu Ignite" was not quite as unbearably fiery as we anticipated, its pinwheel of colorful toppings adding the richness of crushed peanuts, savory crumbles of minced beef, and a fermented tang of fresh red peppers.
This is not to say Chengdu Famous Foods will not light a few sparks. An unusual appetizer of cold sliced beef layered between fistfuls of cilantro leaves was so encrusted with the anesthetizing dust of peppercorn spice that my lips tingled as though they were covered with velvet. A mini-wok of dry pot-style lamb was also a full-powered mouthful of heat, but it was the mingling of other textures — the snap of leeks, sweet onions, and crunchy fresh bean sprouts — that brought the flavor of tender lamb to the fore.
Chendu's kitchen is far from perfect, as is the overly speedy service, which brought us more than our table could hold all at once, gave us a wrong dish, and then compounded the error by charging us extra to make the correct one. And I could have done without the Dragon buns we didn't order, which were artlessly doughy, and the pot stickers, which were nothing special. The trendy "Chengdu burgers" would have been better had the English muffinlike bun not been so hard.
But there were far more successes to compensate, and at such fair prices, with most entrees under $15, that risking a few unfamiliar dishes was a worthwhile low-risk adventure. The menu section called Chengdu Master's specials is uniformly great, a variation on the Chongquing-style of stir-fry with lots of dried peppers and bits of spice-crusted cubes of meat that had a less-thick breading than most. The chicken is an easy choice. But the little niblets of pork spare ribs were also a surprising hit. If you're dining with a group, the Chengdu deluxe fish is a worthy table centerpiece: a huge whole fish that's wok-fried, then served in what looks like a radiator pan of red broth filled with everything from shrimp, scallops, and lotus roots to quail eggs and wood ear mushrooms.
Speaking of those crinkly black mushrooms, which have a crunch reminiscent of seaweed, they're fantastic on their own as a milder respite from the spicier dishes, as are the slivered oyster mushrooms infused with sesame oil. An unusually delicate creation of snappy shrimp and tofu in a velvety sauce turned golden with egg yolks was a dish I've not seen anywhere else.
One particularly memorable dish that I have seen elsewhere (at DanDan and West Philly's Sang Kee, but none better than Chengdu's) is the sour and spicy beef soup. This wok full of tender, thin-sliced rib eye over glass noodles comes in a steaming hot pool of yellow broth turned sour with the natural tang of celery and mustard greens that have been fermented for months in-house. There's a warm glow of chilies in the background, too, but it is more intense in a salty-sour kind way. It was startling at first, but once my taste buds recalibrated to what was happening, I found it powerfully magnetic.
It is just the kind of dish, just as Chengdu Famous Food is exactly the right kind of restaurant, that is giving Chinatown West a fresh identity all its own. And it will only grow stronger if University City continues evolving to suit its changing population, and some of those newcomers, like Mark Rao, decide to stay and make that change as delicious as possible.