Chongqing is best known for hot pot, but there’s more to the city than just spicy soup. The best restaurants are hidden inside a vast network of tunnels, which was built during World War II to protect against air raids.
Hot pot—particularly the tongue-numbing, spicy variety—is the pride of Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis in the southwestern mountains of China, but there’s more to the city than just hot pot.
Sure, the communal way of eating might dominate the restaurant scene—it’s said that one in five eateries in Chongqing is a hot pot restaurant—but when it comes to local food, hot pot is just the tip of the iceberg.
Walk around, and you’ll find silky rice noodles served in rich beef broth, skewers cooked to order on the spot, and different varieties of offal just bursting with flavor.
Chongqing is a big city, with a vast network of underground tunnels built during World War II.
Today, many of the city’s best restaurants are hidden inside these tunnels, and they can be hard to find. So we enlisted the help of a Chongqing native, Ann Yang, to show us some of her favorite spots.
“If you want street food in Chongqing, you have to go to hole-in-the-wall places,” Yang says. “The place might look dodgy, but the flavor is first-class.”
And yes, we did end up going to a hot pot restaurant. Check out our recommendation at the bottom.
Breakfast: Beef and lamb noodles
When a shop only sells one dish, you know it has to be good.
Niu Yang Kai Wei Fen, which literally means “delicious beef and lamb noodles,” serves rice noodles with cow and sheep tripe in a bowl of clear beef broth. Your only choice at this shop is the size of bowl: large or small.
The noodles are served with a sprinkling of chopped scallions, a side of homemade pickles, and generous spoonfuls of chili sauce. The calorie-heavy dish is typically eaten for breakfast.
(Read more: Nobody knows rice noodles better than Yunnan)
According to Yang, the owner has been perfecting her dish for decades.
“She’s known me since I was tiny,” Yang says. “She’s absolutely magical and hasn’t changed the place at all over the years.”
Address: 牛羊开味粉, 小龙坎正街110号
110 Xiaolongkan Main Street, just off the Xiaolongkan metro station
Lunch: Spicy assorted skewers
During World War II, Chongqing, because of its mountainous location, housed much of China’s ammunition supply, and a vast network of tunnels served as air-raid shelters.
Today, many of those tunnels have been turned into underground malls, and this shop called Lao Difang Mala Skewers, literally “old place spicy skewers,” is popular with the lunch crowd.
Going inside, it’s easy to see why. The selection is vast, and the food is prepared quickly. Customers can pick whatever skewers they want, and a cook will boil the ingredients in a spicy chili sauce that’s tinged with numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
“It’s so much more convenient than hot pot,” Yang says. “You can choose whatever you want, it’s cheap, and there are so many choices.” Ingredients include mushrooms, tripe, vegetables, and fish balls.
Address: 老地方麻辣串串香, 九龙坡区杨家坪公交站旁地下通道里
In the underground passage next to Yangjiaping Bus Station in Jiulongpo District
Dinner: Classic Chongqing dishes
Chongqing has a friendly rivalry with another city in the region, Chengdu, over who has the best Sichuan food.
Chunyang has been around for over 30 years serving up classic Chongqing dishes with that characteristic mala 麻辣, or numbingly spicy, flavor that’s famous in this part of China.
The diverse menu includes spicy fried beef with chili peppers, boiled tripe, and century egg with green pepper.
Yang recommends the fish mint salad, though she admits it’s not a dish for everyone. It doesn’t actually have any fish in it. Rather, the name refers to the leaves’ piscine aroma.
Dessert is bingfen 冰粉, a sweet jelly snack made with konjac and dressed with a mild sugar syrup. Overall a well-rounded Chongqing experience, complete with a large selection of fruit wine that’s made in-house.
Address: 纯阳老酒馆, 纯阳洞1号负2(七星岗2号出口）
Chunyang Restaurant, 1 Chunyangdong, just outside exit 2 of Qixinggang metro station
Hot pot in a bunker
Alright, I’ll indulge you with one hot pot restaurant rec in Chongqing—and this one is quite an experience.
Hidden inside a former World War II bunker, Lao Zi Hao Dong Ting Hot Pot, literally “old-brand cave space hot pot,” is one of many businesses that have reimagined spaces dug deep into the mountainside.
Here, you can enjoy classic mala hot pot in a space retrofitted for the apocalypse. The only difference, of course, is that there is ventilation, so the oil and smoke from the hot pot broth can escape into the outside world.
Address: 洞亭鲜火锅, 上清寺中山三路157号附1号
157 Zhongshan Third Road, within walking distance of exits 1 and 7 of Lianglukou metro station