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New Jersey's Sichuan Highway

Ready to go beyond typical Cantonese to try fiery Sichuan cuisine? Two of New Jersey's Best Sichuan Restaurants are five miles apart on Route 23.

A recent essay in The New York Times Magazine describes the author's pursuit of the twenty-three distinct flavors of Sichuan cuisine from New York to Los Angeles. He doesn’t mention any New Jersey restaurants, but the “Sichuan trail” has a Garden State branch. Take a short trip along Route 23 (coincidence?) from Cedar Grove to Wayne, and you can sample classic Sichuan dishes like Dan Dan Noodles, Ma Po Tofu, and Ants Climbing a Tree right here in Jersey. 

In an unassuming strip mall next to a vacant cineplex, Cedar Grove’s Chengdu 1 (89 Pompton Avenue, 973-239-7726) may be making the best Sichuan (aka Szechuan) food in the Garden State. Fiery Spicy Baby Wontons float in red chili oil infused with Sichuan peppercorns. Translucent noodles dotted with ground pork (Ants Climbing a Tree) are tricky to eat with chopsticks, but worth the effort. I am not a fan of tofu, but I couldn’t stop eating the spicy, creamy Ma Po Tofu. The Spicy Meat Bun are spicy soup dumplings that deliver a burst of pure heat – both spice and temperature – in a size you can easily pop in you mouth. Salted & Pepper Spareribs and Shredded Duck with Szechuan Flavor are excellent, less spicy options. Take some time reading the 280 items on Chengdu 1's menu and you can find items that are not always translated into English on most Chinese menus: Frog Meat with Yellow Chives, Pig’s Intestine in Spicy Fine Pot; and OX Tongue, Tripe w. Hot & Pepper Sauce. If you are adventurous with offal, the Hot & Spicy Pig’s Kidney is a surprisingly tasty cold salad.

Chengdu 1 features a spacious, family-friendly dining room with many large tables. The servers’ English is limited, but the staff is friendly and well-intentioned. Be patient. Service can be a bit haphazard, dishes arriving randomly whenever they are ready.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in Southwestern China, is a popular name for restaurants serving Sichuan cuisine. Continue five miles north on Pompton Avenue (Route 23) to the edge of the Willowbrook Mall to find Cheng Du 23 (6 Willowbrook Boulevard, Wayne, NJ, 973-812-2800), another Jersey Sichuan stand out.

Cheng Du 23′s extensive menu includes some familiar Cantonese dishes but features Sichuan cuisine like Tea Smoked Duck and a lip-smacking plate of cumin dusted sliced lamb sauteed with with dried chili. Steamed Juice Bun (soup dumplings) are large and chewy, with a burst of hot broth inside (though not as spicy as the Spicy Meat Bun at Chengdu 1). Ants Climbing a Tree are nicely flavored, but the cellophane noodles were a bit soggy. Jumbo shrimp with lobster sauce is a flavorful, non-spicy, option. 

Also almost hidden in the corner of a strip mall, Cheng Du 23′s mirrored dining room is much larger than you might expect looking at the entrance from the outside. Service is enthusiastic and friendly, with plenty of suggestions for those new to Sichuan food.

Which Jersey Chengdu is better? Unlike Clifton's Chengdu 46, which serves upscale, overwhelmingly non-Chinese diners, many Chinese customers fill the tables at both Chengdu 1 and Cheng Du 23, and prices are reasonable. You will eat well at either, but I give the nod to Chengdu 1, where the flavors are more distinct (and powerful), and the dishes have more character. Whichever you choose, spice up your next Chinese meal on New Jersey's Sichuan highway.

To find more of New Jersey's best Chinese food, visit EthnicNJ.com.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Marcia Worth (Editor) October 23, 2012 at 09:55 AM
These sound wonderful, esp the cumin-dusted lamb.
Fran Hopkins October 26, 2012 at 03:25 PM
I've enjoyed both Chengdu 46 in Clifton for many years and more recently, Chengdu 1 in Cedar Grove. Their food is wonderful and now I want to try Cheng Du 23 by Willowbrook. I guess you're saying that, despite the similar names, these three restaurants have different owners? Thanks for the mouth-watering reviews!
Steve Cohen November 01, 2012 at 11:58 AM
We stopped going to Chengdu 1 because the service was consistently rude or at best, indifferent. Chengdu 23, on the other hand, has wonderful, friendly service to go with its amazing food.
Yankeefan November 01, 2012 at 08:12 PM
I find Chengdu 1 very inconsistent. They lost a step over the past year. Better than many but far from great. Unfortunately. my other standby (Seasons in Clifton) seems to have had a decline in quality as well. I'll have to give Cheng Du 23 a try.
Anthony November 08, 2012 at 05:00 PM
Yes, despite the "Chengdu" name, I believe each restaurant has a different owner. I have also experienced inconsistent service at Chengdu 1, but I am still addicted to their food, which has been uniformly strong. For those who like spicy - I also recommend the Chili Garlic Noodles at Ming (http://ethnicnj.com/reviews/ming-edison/), an Indo-Chinese restaurant, on Oak Tree Road in Edison.
Joy Yagid November 12, 2012 at 12:45 AM
Will try these - but also like China Chalet in Florham Park. The pork dumplings in red oil are yummy, spicy and numb the lips.

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