Full disclosure: I can’t stand the heat. Whether it’s hot weather (although Vegas’ dry heat is almost tolerable) or spicy food, I’m not particularly inclined to seek out the searing, and with food in particular, I shy away from dishes that seem spicy only for the sake of being spicy.
On Schiff Road, which is actually a parking lot behind a Chinatown strip mall, we’re all discovering Chengdu Taste, the local outpost of a Sichuan restaurant from the West Coast Asian dining mecca of the San Gabriel Valley outside LA. Even to me, this restaurant is an epiphany, doling out spicy food I actually crave, because at Chengdu, peppers are used to varying degrees to highlight flavors rather than create Fear Factor challenges. The results are memorable.
From the moment you enter the utilitarian space, you’re subject to an onslaught of pepper aroma expected from traditionally spicy Sichuan cuisine. It’s no surprise that Chengdu’s menu is strewn with pictures of peppers, ranging from zero to three to indicate heat level. But buyer beware: Almost every dish brings the fire. Even most of the dishes sans pepper notation are hot. And in almost every dish, the heat is delivered differently. Mung bean jelly noodles with chili sauce ($7) is a cold appetizer where the heat gradually builds, thanks to the chili oil and black vinegar broth in which they’re swimming. The soft noodles’ texture is offset by crispy fried peanuts, fermented beans and even more peppers.
Diced Rabbit with Younger Sister’s Secret Recipe ($14)—the best dish name ever?—is challenging, with the rabbit strewn with small pieces of bone. Order it and you’ll be rewarded with miniscule bites of meat doused in a complex, mouth-numblingly hot sauce that would make Older Sister proud, too. And because your life is not complete without experiencing actual “numb taste,” try numb taste wontons ($8), which will send your palate on a vicious trip. In fact, the Sichuan peppercorns used liberally throughout the menu will bring an unmistakable tingle to the palate. Embrace it, it’s fun.
Tan tan noodles ($8) are probably the Valley’s best rendition of the dish more commonly known as dan dan, the peanut-buttery sauce melding with chili oil for more than a hint of heat. In what could be the ultimate tailgate snack, toothpick lamb with cumin ($16) delivers hints of gaminess on mini skewers beneath layers of cumin intertwined with peppers in a dish more flavorful than hot. This one’s seriously addictive.
Sliced fish with tofu pudding in hot sauce ($15) is as floral as it is spice-laden, weighing in with a well-deserved two-pepper warning bordering on scorched-earth spicy. Cut the heat with one of the few non-spiced dishes on the menu—Chengdu-style fried rice ($10) rife with egg and yacai (preserved mustard greens)—or wash down your meal with the mysteriously smoky plum juice ($5 a carafe).
No matter where you wander on the voluminous menu, you’re guaranteed your share of peppers. But embrace your masochistic side, because the deeper you get, the sweeter the pain. It is so worth it.
Chengdu Taste 3950 Schiff Drive, 702-437-7888. Daily, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.