If you hear people call Taste of Chengdu the hottest restaurant in town, you should probably know that they may not be referring to its popularity, though popular it certainly is.
It’s also serving some of the hottest, as in spiciest, food you’re likely to find in Central Florida.
Geography geeks will recognize Chengdu as the capital of China’s Sichuan province. Culinary nerds will know that Sichuan cuisine (also sometimes spelled Szechuan or Szechwan) is known for its liberal use of fiery hot peppers, particularly the Sichuan pepper, which has an initial taste that is slightly metallic but then spreads like a wildfire through tinder. It does not make your tongue tingle, it makes it throb.
And that leads, I suppose, to its popularity. Yes, there is a certain sector of the dining public with a masochistic tendency to sear their tastebuds. They’d probably lick a branding iron just out of a campfire if it was sprinkled with Sriracha. But we’re also seeing a new appreciation for authentic Asian cuisine in general and Chinese food in particular. The west side of town has become the de facto home to many of the restaurants offering more than Americanized versions of Chinese dishes.
Taste of Chengdu isn’t as far west as most of them, those that occupy a repurposed strip mall dubbed Chinatown. Chengdu is in a Best Western motel on West Colonial Drive just past Tampa Avenue. It does not look like a stereotypical Chinese restaurant, but then it doesn’t look like a stereotypical Best Western coffeeshop, either. It’s a bright and open space with a peaked ceiling. The wood-tile floor is spotless and the booths and chairs at the granite-topped tables are comfortable. That’s good because service isn’t exactly speedy here.
It is helpful, however, and if you’re unfamiliar with Sichuan cuisine your server will be happy to guide you. You might be steered toward the Cold Noodles with Spicy Sauce, or the Five Spices Pork with Pancake. Or maybe the Spicy Hot and Sour Pig Intestine.
Intestines didn’t sound very appetizing to me, so I ordered the tripe.
Tripe with Roasted Chili Sauce, to be exact. As with most of the appetizers at Chengdu, the tripe was served cold. But make no mistake, it was hot. It was mixed with thin slices of what may or may not have been ox tongue (those words had a line drawn through them on the menu) and it was all bathed in the oil based sauce that was dotted with chopped peppers. After two bites it didn’t matter what I ate because my tongue had gone numb.
But I could tell that the meat in my Stir Fried Beef Flank Steak in Cumin Sauce was quite tender. And the onions and red and green bell peppers were still crispy on the bite. There were also chunkier bits of chili peppers mixed in. A small bowl of white rice was served with the dish but the fluffy grains could not counteract the spicy sauce.
By the way, because of its motel affiliation, Taste of Chengdu also serves breakfast but, as a sign out front says, it’s an American menu in the morning.
According to my server, the foods on the lunch menu are American, too. You know, dishes like General Tso’s Chicken and Kung Pao. Look to the main menu for a real Taste of Chengdu.
Taste of Chengdu is at 2030 W. Colonial Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. There is no website. The phone number is 407-839-1983.