Good vibrations on Pagoda Street – Chuan Garden Sichuan Restaurant

To many, Singapore’s Chinatown consists primarily of Pagoda Street and a few cross streets with knickknack stores and mediocre eateries bulging onto the sidewalk. Except when showing out-of-towners around, locals tend to avoid these eateries along the trinket trail – we see them as tourist traps, overpriced or just plain “un-cool” to be caught dining at.

But some restaurants in this part of Chinatown get a bad rap just because of their location. Take for example Chuan Garden Restaurant, a glass fronted, air conditioned Sichuan restaurant immediately at the top of the MRT escalator on Pagoda Street. It’s hard to find a more touristy location this side of Marina Bay. There’s even a pedestal with a menu outside. But my mother always said “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and so applying that principle here, I gave it a try.

Inside, Chuan Garden is pleasant: simple tables, tasteful décor and not much clutter. Our plan was to focus on a couple of fundamentals to gauge the kitchen’s Sichuan skill.  Contradicting our minority ang moh status in the restaurant, we told the waitress to give us authentic Sichuan heat; not some tamed-down tourist version.

We started with a classic Mapo Doufu which to me is a Sichuan basic which forecasts the quality of my pending meal. The tofu was cubed larger than typical, giving ample surface area to hold the spicy chili oil and finely minced beef. The initial taste attack was complex and savory, if not a bit salty even for this dish. The chili heat unwound slowly, starting as a warm sensation accompanied with a hearty meat and scallion flavor. From there it elevated to a medium burn as the oil coated the back of my palate and worked its way down. Perhaps hot by the tourist standards, we found it to be pleasantly piquant but not overwhelming (was our heat level mandate lost in translation?). Then the third layer of taste – Sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao) – revealed itself with its hallmark vibrato of quivering inside my mouth, and I started to relax about the food. The heat level stalled just below medium-high but delivered enough other flavor and silky tofu texture to make up for its spicy shortcomings.

La Zhi Ji
We moved on to another basic Sichuan requirement:  La Zhi Ji. To me a plate of these crispy chicken pieces buried in a mountain of dried chilies is one of the most exciting Sichuan dishes I know, because eating it is both a challenge and a dare. The challenge: to dig through the pile of fiercely hot chilies and find the golden chunks hidden within; the dare: to resist devouring chopsticksful of the maliciously titillating chilies themselves.

The all-dark-meat chicken was perfectly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, delivering excellent texture and chew factor. The red chilies imparted a satisfying, but utterly bearable fire. A scattering of sesame seeds, scallions and a few hua jiao added freshness and a little numbness to each bite. But as good as it tasted, something was missing. And it took a few minutes before I realized just what that was: the thrill of the hunt.

A platter of La Zhi Ji should bring out the child in those of us who like to play with their food. Finishing this dish should spark an emotional  rollercoaster of disappointment and triumph: the dejected sense of failure when desperately digging for a final, elusive scrap of chicken, and the heroic exuberance of actually finding one. It makes the dish exactly what Sichuan food should be: exciting and fun! But without enough chilies to lose the chicken in, Chuan Garden’s La Zhi Ji left me feeling somehow shortchanged; like being handed a free prize at the carnival rather than winning it myself. I wanted to work for my pain!

Mala Frog Legs
But if the volume of chilies amongst the chicken fell short, the hua jiao peppercorns in the Mala frog legs made amends. The dish was presented in a raised bowl, heated beneath and sizzling deep in the bottom. Silky frogs legs were nestled between a bite sized medley of green and red capsicum, cubes of chayote, fiery red chilis and a very generous handful of whole garlic cloves. They were cooked to perfection and just so Ma! The richness of the frog legs permeated the glistening peppers and firm garlic with not a hint of swampy tang. Best of all, a fistful of hua jiao was tossed in and – like sirens temping wayward seafarers to steer toward the rocky shores and their certain demise – their flowery redolence lured our craving lips closer to repeated helpings despite the searing pain. The dish steamed beneath our noses, the spice level skyrocketed as our sweat pores loosened, and the numbing vibrations in the tissue of our lips accelerated to staccato pounding on the roof of our mouths. Finally we had reached the pinnacle of the Chengdo mountain and suffered the full-on heatfest of our cravings. And it hurt so good!

Indeed, straying further from Chinatown’s touristy center leads to excellent food from the motherland and beyond. But while Chuan Garden may not fill the (sadly empty) shoes of such Sichuan stalwarts as say, Ba Yu Ren Jia, it’s good to know that even amidst the tourist fervor of Pagoda Street, there is good food to be found.

Chuan Garden Restaurant, 79 Pagoda Street, Singapore