Taste of Shu – Charlotte, NC
I am having a passionate love affair with Sichuan cuisine these days. This started with my exploration of one of the most classic Sichuan dishes, ma po tofu, which I made for the first time in the throes of the early pandemic. Since then, I've made it dozens of times, and have become a ravenous pursuer of excellent Sichuan restaurants all over the country. One of the best of these, if not the very best, happens to be just fifteen minutes from my apartment.
I never would have discovered Taste of Shu but for my buddy Jared getting leaving his full-time church music job and landing a new gig selling pianos at the Steinway gallery, where he befriended a Chinese customer and asked him where his favorite food was in town. The resounding answer was Taste of Shu, a project of an immigrant from Sichuan Province, housed in a strip mall on the south side of town. We finally visited a few months later and have since become regulars.
The menu, as with many Chinese spots, is rather sprawling and difficult to navigate simply because of the breadth. Since I've been to this place so many times, I'll just give you the run down of the dishes I've had that keep appearing on my table every time I visit.
First, settle in with a good friend and a Tsingtao.
Then, sample some classics. The most quintessential Sichuan dish is ma po tofu––silken tofu cubes and ground beef or pork cooked in a sauce of chili oil, broth, doubanjiang (spicy Sichuan bean paste), and Sichuan peppercorns. As you might imagine, Shu's ma po is a masterclass in the dish, with the numbing floral bite of Sichuan peppercorns, robust but forgiving heat, and mouthwatering salinity.
Dan dan noodles are another ubiquitous Sichuan specialty. Shu serves them in an appetizer portion, with the chili oil sauce, pork, and peanuts at the bottom to mix in with the noodles. They complement the dish with a few pieces of crisp steamed baby bok choy. Sichuan comfort food at its finest.
Another go-to is probably my favorite dish on the menu (so far), and serves as an excellent object lesson––always ask your server what they recommend. On our second visit, Jared and I were a bit flummoxed about what to sample, since the menu is so large and we wanted to try something different, so our server strongly recommended the spicy fried fish. I am leery of fish at strip mall restaurants, but these fried morsels house fresh, moist whitefish, all served over a bed of chilis, garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, and all manner of other spices. It's stupid how good this dish is. Make sure you eat the garlic, too.
Last but certainly not least, I would highlight their "flaming pan" dishes, which are always outstanding. Perched over a low flame, the ingredients are kept warm in their bowls and the components meld into waves of incomprehensible complexity as you eat. Protein, mushrooms, onions, green veggies, cabbage, cauliflower, lotus root, and bamboo are the usual suspects simmering in an impossibly flavorful Chengdu-style sauce. Jared and I usually go for their beef, but Auntie Cindy encouraged me to try their mixed mushroom flaming pan during our recent visit, which was outstanding as well.
Tea-smoked duck is also a highlight here, as well as some of their veggie sides and even the sorta gross-sounding appetizer of chilled beef organ meat in chili sauce. You really can't go wrong. I look forward to my next visit where I'll be sure to try something new!
Fellow Charlotteans––run, don't walk, to this gem. Start with the classics and branch out from there. I can almost guarantee you'll quickly become a regular. For those readers in other corners of the country (or world), go find some amazing Sichuan food in your city, or perhaps try cooking some at home! The flavors are bold and spectacular, and I predict that you, too, will fall madly in love with Sichuan cuisine.