I scream, you scream, we all scream for hot & sour pig intestines.
Taste of Chengdu is the best Chinese restaurant in Orlando.
Kapow! Now that’s a lead-in, right? ‘Nuff said? Tie a bow on it? Stick a chopstick in it? Roll it up in a carpet, toss it in a trunk and dump it in Lake Ivanhoe? Should I even continue writing? Seriously. Why are you still reading? Grab your keys and set all controls for the heart of West Orlando.
What? Caveats? Evidence? Rationale? How dare you. How. Dare. You. I thought this was a relationship built on trust. No, no. You’re right dear reader. There are caveats aplenty, platefuls of firsthand evidence, and some spectacularly irrational rationale.
An establishing shot: Taste of Chengdu is located in the parking lot of a Best Western. We can’t attest to it being the best, but it is indeed western. It sits on the sundown side of I-4 on Colonial – a banh mi’s throw from Mills 50. Our meals at the standout Sichuan eatery have been so sprawling and overindulgent of late that we’ve been tempted to book a room. Ain’t no party like a sleepy, bloated, Orlando Eats’ after-party.
At this point, most Orlando foodies are familiar with Taste of Chengdu. Orlando Weekly has fawned over them, Scott Joseph’s tepid nod might as well be a gush, and a steady stream of instapeeps and foodie folk flock to outweird friends and family and engage in feats of photographic one-upmanship. Consider this review an introduction for the uninitiated, a recommendation to adventurous tourists, a bit of a redux and a tiny update for the been there and done that’s.
Taste of Chengdu is the lovechild of Chef Xiong “Tiger” Tang. Even if you’re the creepy type of freak that dislikes Chinese food, you should be giving this man your money in tribute to his handle. It’s the coolest name in O-Town. Tiger Tang. Like an energy drink for Gen Z astronauts. The thing? There’s mad skills behind the moniker.
The talented Mr. Tang definitely has the pedigree – he’s a Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine grad and steered the ship at Zen Restaurant at the Omni for many years. He also wears his passion for food proudly on his sleeve. On our last visit, he shared photos of his family’s seriously stunning resto in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, and spoke of how Taste of Chengdu has been a test bed of sorts for introducing bolder flavors to the Orlando market. It appears we – the eaters of Orlando – have passed the test with flying colors. Taste of Chengdu will be opening a second location in leafy Baldwin Park come November with a promise of even more authenticity and innovation.
For now at least, Orlando parkies and district denizens will still have to venture forth from their bubbles a bit to enjoy his fiery fare. A bit. Taste of Chengdu is basically downtown. It’s also a soft landing. The interior is clean, bright and spacious – very comfortable in a very generic way. My father was in sales and I used to go on the road with him as a kid. I spent a lot of time in motel (not hotel) restaurants that looked very much like Taste of Chengdu. For me? Comfort plus.
So – caveats, evidence, rationale.
A bit of preliminary duh: China is vast and incredibly diverse. When it comes to its cuisine, there are a great many highly distinct regional variations and, in Sichuan province itself, there are further variations in the prep of many of its staple dishes. Chasing tastes can be a deliciously wild ride. In full disclosure, stylistically peaking, Sichuan tops our list of favorite Chinese flavors and Taste of Chengdu is very Sichuan. The name is kind of a hit-you-over-head hint. That’s caveat numero uno.
Caveat number two. We love spicy food that’s unapologetically true to its origins. Not everyone shares this love, and the food at Taste of Chengdu is spicy on the whole. Sichuan employs a cornucopia of dried and fresh chilies and peppercorns. Scientifically speaking, many dishes are buoyed by “ma la” – a mash up of familiar capsaicin burn with the numbiness of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool (sounds tasty, right?). The chemistry behind it is interesting if you’re into commie stuff like science.
Stateside, Sichuan cuisine has largely become synonymous with dried Sichuan red peppercorns – hua jiao. It’s the primary source of the lip-vibrating numb we all know and love – well most of us. And if you’re peppercorn averse, don’t worry. The peppercorns are not peppercorns. They’re dried citrus berries from prickly ash trees. They were also banned in the US until 2005 – considered a threat to yankee citrus, which may explain why we’re only now seeing more and more authentic Sichuan eats outside of major cities. Sorry. Loooonnnng story short: if you’re afraid of spicy, Chengdu ain’t the place for you.
A caveat on this caveat: it’s not all fire before flavor. Many make the mistake of reducing Sichuan to a one-dimensional punchline; entirely dismissing its wonderful complexities and subtleties. The best Sichuan restos largely succeed in enhancing core ingredients with not only spicy, but salty and sour, fermented, bitter and umami – a riot of layered flavors. In this, Taste of Chengdu also largely succeeds, ensuring it’s not a novelty for double-dare dining.
Last caveat – there are heaps of Americanized dishes that large swathes of us have favorited across generations, a lot of them quite good. But if General Tso’s is your endgame there’s other strip-mall ballparks you should be playing in. Much of the menu at Taste of Chendgu is a world away from Panda Express – think stir fried frog, honeycomb tripe and pig intestines. Sure, there are ample opportunities to feed your kung pao fix – the menu is dotted with the stateside-familiar – but if you’re going to Chendgu to save a buck on the beef and broccoli lunch special you likely won’t leave sharing our glowing assessment.
On the whole, the food at Taste of Chengdu is 巴适 (it kicks a bit of ass). It largely beats the pants off of any current Chinese eatery in Orlando and is on par with what we’ve enjoyed in more established Chinatown’s in the States and UK. This being stated, as a frequent traveler to all parts Asia, Orlando Eat’s Go-Kart Romeo is our resident expert – for over a decade, he’s spent several weeks every year riding the Red Dragon. Let’s leave it at this. The only Chinese restaurant he loves in Orlando is Taste of Chengdu.
If you’re familiar with Sichuan, you’ll immediately spot some familiar fare. Dandan Noodles with minced pork (think Sichuan Bolognese), Mapo Tofu (or pockmarked grandmother’s tofu), Twice-cooked pork, and Dry-fried green beans are all classics and they’re good, but we wouldn’t classify them as add-an-additional-30-minutes-to-your-drive good. It’s not why we find ourselves going back again and again. They’re popcorn at the movies – highly enjoyable but a munchie sideshow for main attractions.
The stuff we love?
Spicy pork dumplings ($5.95) seem to find their way to our table every visit. A Sichuan staple, they arrive plump with pork in a delicious slick of perfumed chili oil.
Cold sliced beef and tripe – also in chili oil – is another oft visited dish. At a glance, many might dismiss both of the above as oily. Yes, there is a lot of visible oil. No, they are not ‘oily.’ The chili oil at Taste of Chengdu has amazing depth and highlights rather than masks core textures and tastes.
Dried bean curd skin is a fast fave of our crew, and Chengdu’s version in green onion sauce ($7.95) is a brightly subtle and chewy foil to what are most often more heavily spiced table companions.
Into frog? There’s no better place in Orlando to get your frog on than Taste of Chengdu. The big bowl o’ happy hoppy photographed here ($29.95) came Sichuan standard; with bone-in meat that’s soft as little pillows and studded with garlic, peppers and other mystery whatnot.
We also absolutely loved a straightforward dish of plump, crisp and very large shrimp with minced pork and Sichuan peppercorn.
Laziji Chicken ($17.95), or what we call “lazy chicken” due to its sweatpanty, who-cares-about-my-diabetes appeal, is a pile of marinated, deep fried chicken set ablaze with dried chili and Sichuan peppers. Let me count the ways this possibly couldn’t be good. Zero. Addictive as all get out.
Visit after visit, the hits at Taste of Chendgu just get bigger and bigger. During our last drop in, Tiger auditioned a behemoth of a Lobster (market price) for us tableside before returning with the meat hacked to oblivion and artfully displayed in the shell with dried chili and peppercorn, garlic and spring onion.
And all of the above? Just the listed dishes. Tiger’s talent truly shines where his menu ends. Many of the best bites at Taste of Chengdu are off-menu. He’s encouraged us to always ask about ‘specials’ and, in turn, we would encourage you (especially since they’re rarely voiced). A short rib special we’ve yet to try was made to sound as if it’ll make you right with the world. If you put it in your mouth before we do and feel smarter, sexier and more successful, let us know about it.
To make our lobster visit even more off the charts groovy, we were hipped to the off-menu treat this is whole striped bass with green Sichuan peppercorn. The green peppercorn is less common than the dried red – especially stateside – and far more citrusy, perfumed and piney. This was a new taste for us and a very welcome one. It’s also easily one of the best fish dishes we’ve eaten in Orlando. Fresh, melt-in-your-mouth meat that played wonderfully with a subtle yet spicy broth. Good, good, good. Thinking about it now. Thinking. About. It. Now. This dish, along with the spicy lobster above, are destination dining dishes. Both are simply fantastic.
So, odds and ends. The only plate that’s disappointed thus far has been diced rabbit. Too much bone, not enough meat. Not a problem for us, but worth noting that there’s no staging – dishes arrive when they arrive. Service has been friendly and efficient across all meals, although we’ve heard rumbles from others that it can be inconsistent. Weekends can get crowded. If you have the luxury, go during the week or off-hours (we’re big fans of 2PM dunches or 4:30PM linners). Finally, worth noting that Taste of Chengdu’s excellence doesn’t extend to bevvies. There’s bad wine and OK bubble stuff – safest to stick with tea and/or Tsingtao.
We’ll wrap this novella up by doubling down on our claim that Taste of Chengdu is currently the best Chinese restaurant in Orlando. It’s an easy proclamation. There are a handful of other eateries that could stake a dubious (incorrect) claim, but none of them standout as soup-to-nuts excellent. Actually? Not even the subject of this review.
Taste of Chendgu isn’t perfect. Its specials and signature items are as good or better than most of the Sichuan I’ve eaten here and abroad, but Orlando isn’t Vancouver, San Francisco, LA, or New York. Meaning that the market doesn’t necessarily demand top to bottom excellence nor does it clamor for unfiltered authenticity. This translates to a pedestrian take or two on simpler dishes, the mundane drinks list, etc.
If this sounds a bit like last-minute hedging, it’s not. It’s last-minute prodding. We’ll continue to look forward to each meal at Taste of Chengdu and, while there, eat like there’s no tomorrow, but will do so while encouraging it to continue to push boundaries and refine edges – both in its current and new Baldwin Park locations.
In sum, Tiger Tang has built a winner of a restaurant that’s fast becoming an Orlando institution. We would heartily recommend it to anyone that asks. Are you asking? No? Sorry, I thought you said something.