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Dining review: Chengdu 7 in Cary is a Sichuan specialist

You’ll be given a separate sushi bar-style menu that allows you to choose from dozens of options that run the gamut for Chengdu 7’s dry pot, pictured here, or hot pot, a classic communal Sichuan dish.
You’ll be given a separate sushi bar-style menu that allows you to choose from dozens of options that run the gamut for Chengdu 7’s dry pot, pictured here, or hot pot, a classic communal Sichuan dish. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Before Chengdu 7 opened last December — fittingly, in a cluster of strip mall shops and restaurants whose diversity in food has earned it the nickname “Little U.N.” — Cary was already home to the lion’s share of authentic Chinese restaurants in the Triangle. If you include the neighboring bedroom community of Morrisville, you’ve got nearly half of all the three dozen restaurants in the Triangle specializing in Sichuan, Taiwanese and other regional cuisines.

Surprised at that number? No wonder, given the recent phenomenal growth rate of traditional Chinese restaurants in the area. In the past two years, eight newcomers have come online in Cary and Morrisville, more than doubling the number.

Chengdu 7, like many of the other new arrivals on the scene, is a Sichuan specialist. Question is, given all the nearby competition (you could practically toss a scallion pancake out the front door and hit Super Wok, another Sichuan restaurant), does Chengdu 7 have what it takes to attract a customer base?

It’s still early going, but I think it’s safe to say the answer is yes. A complimentary welcoming dish of spicy peanuts is a good start in setting the restaurant apart from the crowd. The meal that follows is consistently well-executed, and in some instances on a par with the best in the area.

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Chengdu 7’s stir-fried fresh pea tips with mushrooms raise the ante on the competition, with matsutake mushrooms playing earthy counterpoint to the delicate vegetal sweetness of leafy green shoots. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Stir-fried fresh pea tips with mushrooms actually raise the ante on the competition, with matsutake mushrooms playing earthy counterpoint to the delicate vegetal sweetness of leafy green shoots. You’ll find them under the “Vegetables” heading, along with the likes of shredded potato with green pepper, cabbage with fermented bean sauce and the universally popular wok-fried string beans.

House-made pork dumplings, pillowy purses with a tender yet gratifyingly substantial bite, are generously plumped with a savory ginger-tinged filling of minced pork. Scallion pancakes are on the money, too, as are Sichuan style cold noodles tossed in a chile-flecked sheen of sesame oil and soy sauce.

Bold palates not intimidated by the name of another cold appetizer called “mustard fungus” will appreciate the double barrel shotgun kick of sinus-clearing mustard and fiery bird chiles that punctuate soy-marinated wood ear mushrooms.

The extensive entree offering includes just about any Sichuan dish you can think of, and more than a few surprises. Camphor-smoked roast duck, salted egg yolk-flavored pumpkins and pepper kidney — none of which I have yet tried — come to mind.

But I did try squirrel fish. Chengdu 7’s presentation of the dish (which gets its fanciful name from its appearance, said to resemble a squirrel’s tail) could serve as an illustration in a Sichuan cookbook: a whole tilapia, scored in a crosshatch pattern before being deep-fried in a light batter, then glazed with a vibrant hot and sour sauce spangled with green peas and diced carrots.

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Chengdu 7’s Chongqing chicken, another Sichuan standard, gets a solid rendering with crisp, lightly battered nuggets of wok-fried chicken, tossed with copious shards of toasted red chile. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Among more familiar dishes, ho fung (here spelled he feng) noodles make a strong showing, with four variations offered: beef, chicken, shrimp, veggie, plus the hearty pork ho fung that was a consensus favorite among our party of four one night.

Chongqing chicken, another Sichuan standard, gets a solid rendering: crisp, lightly battered nuggets of wok-fried chicken, tossed with copious shards of toasted red chile. Another dish listed as lamb skewers (translation: bite size morsels of lean, cumin-scented lamb on toothpick “skewers”) doubles down on the heat with a veritable avalanche of chiles.

You’ll be given a separate sushi bar-style menu for hot pot, a classic communal Sichuan dish. Start by marking five items under the “Vegetable Pot” heading at the top. Then add as many proteins and other extras as you like, choosing from dozens of options that run the gamut from Chinese sausage to sliced lotus (each priced separately). Finally, choose your preferred level of spiciness.

Hot pot pro tip No. 1: Don’t go overboard with the extras. A couple of proteins, and maybe one or two premium vegetables, should be enough.

Pro tip No. 2: In hot weather, the dry pot — think hot pot without the broth — is a winning alternative.

I don’t recall seeing anything like the brown sugar and sweet rice buns elsewhere, but if I do see them again I’ll definitely order them. The “buns” are actually rectangular cakes of sticky rice, sitting in a dark puddle of brown sugar caramel, and sprinkled with more brown sugar in granulated form. Offered here as a dessert, they call to mind something you might see on a dim sum cart.

Located in the former Korean Garden space (the exhaust hoods that were formerly used for Korean barbecue remain, but are now dormant), Chengdu 7 is a modestly furnished but cheery space decorated with colorful wall-spanning murals of cavorting pandas and a mountain-lined seashore. An attentive and eager-to-please wait staff add to the welcoming vibe. Not all servers speak fluent English, so it’s a good idea to point to each item on the menu as you order it to avoid misinterpretations.

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Chengdu 7’s brown sugar and sweet rice buns are rectangular cakes of sticky rice, sitting in a dark puddle of brown sugar caramel, and sprinkled with more brown sugar in granulated form. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Chengdu 7 is named for the capital city of Sichuan Province, which happens to be the birthplace of owner-chef Jianjun Hu. The restaurant is Hu’s first, though he’s a veteran chef who has worked in restaurants since he was a 15-year-old in his hometown. Locally, he cooked at Taipei 101 before setting out on his own to open Chengdu 7.

And the 7? According to Hu, it’s his wife’s lucky number.

I’d say it’s also a lucky number for anyone who eats at Chengdu 7. Maybe they should put that in their fortune cookies.

Chengdu 7

748 E. Chatham St., Suite E, Cary

919-883-5567

chengdu7cary.com

Cuisine: Chinese

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: casual and cheery

Noise level: low

Service: attentive and eager to please

Recommended: cold noodles, scallion pancake, pork dumplings, ho fun, Chongqing chicken, stir-fried pea tips, dry pot

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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