The term “fly restaurant” is unique to the southwest province of Sichuan, used to describe a class of eateries serving up gorgeous food for cheap prices, in a subpar atmosphere.
“Some of its prerequisites are that [they’re] hard to find,” said Jenny Gao, a Sichuanese chef, who runs a supper club in the city. “There's no advertising. They have pretty much no atmosphere and questionable hygiene, but the most important part is that the flavor is delicious and that is what unites everybody.
“It's all about home-style mom-and-pop shops with big flavors."
Goldthread got an insider tour with Gao, who took us to five of her favorite fly restaurants in Chengdu.
1. Chenshi Liangfen (洞子口陈氏凉粉)
Chengshi Liangfen has been around for several decades and features partial alfresco dining but in the grittiest way possible. Plastic stools and low folding tables are crammed together outside and the dishes are hawked around via wheelbarrows. “It’s sort of a free for all once the food comes out, people just grab what they want,” Gao said.
The main attraction is the liangfen, or jelly noodles. There are two types. One is made with mung bean and the other with yellow split pea. They’re served cold and dressed with a heap of fermented chili sauce and fresh, piquant scallions.
Other highlights include a stewed pork belly topped with brown sugar, draped over soy-laced glutinous rice and a spicy fava bean salad with fish mint.
2. Zhang Lao Er Tian Shui Mian (张老二冰粉)
This fly restaurant has been around since 1944 and specializes in sweet water noodles. It’s a bit of a misnomer, though. “It’s not really sweet, also there’s like no water. It’s a dried noodle,” Gao explained.
The noodles are angular, which is different than most others. But it’s the sauce that sets it apart: a delightful slurry of sesame paste, garlic, sweet soy sauce, chili oil, a sprinkle of MSG, and Sichuan peppercorn dust.
3. Chen Mapo Tofu (陈麻婆豆腐)
This is the original mapo tofu eatery. The dish in question is cubes of silken tofu cooked in a sauce of fermented fava bean paste, soy, chili oil, and a liberal sprinkle of Sichuan pepper. Ground pork anchors the tofu and gives it a necessary punch. This restaurant is also where they allegedly invented mapo tofu.
“It was an old lady by the last name of Chen, who had pockmarks on her face, and was known for making this really fiery tofu that she became famous for,” Gao says. “Now this has become a state-owned restaurant with dozen of chains around Chengdu.”
4. Chun Yang Guan (纯阳馆)
Spicy wontons are must in Sichuan, and Chan Yang Guan doles out a superb rendition bathed in a sweet and spicy chili oil. It also which includes ko mo (口蘑)—a type of mushroom grown in the Mongolian highlands. It’s an ingredient that’s used frequently in Sichuanese cooking to add a deep and earthy umami. The Chinese for wontons is chao shou (抄手), which translates to “folded hands”, a reference to the shape of the dish.
5. Mao Jiao Huo La (冒椒火辣)
Chuan chuan is meat on skewers, cooked in a broth like in hot pot. The bill is typically calculated by the weight of the skewers. This particular eatery is one of the busiest restaurants in the entire city.
“This restaurant is part of a new school of Sichuan fly restaurants that are founded by young people who understand classic Sichuan flavor profiles but also want to innovate upon the traditional ways of eating,” Gao said.
The innovation is perhaps in the decor, which is less janky and much cleaner than its old-school counterparts.