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The search for the best la zi ji in Shanghai
In our quest for delectable spicy chicken, we tasted high and low and found truth somewhere in the middle
Chongqing cuisine is an antenna of invention wrapped in an envelope of chilies. Formerly part of Sichuan, now a separate metropolis, like Shanghai, Chongqing takes Sichuan cooking in new directions (while Chengdu merely perfects the traditional). La zi ji or chicken with chilies was born in 1921 inside a small eatery near Chongqing’s hilly forest park Geleshan. The recipe emerged from a dialog between the cook and his apprentice: “What to do, quickly, with a small chicken?”
The solution was quick indeed: chop the bird, legs first, deep-fry and lay aside; garlic, ginger, peppercorns, chilies, sugar, salt. Toss and serve. Exquisitely simple, but the devilish flavor is in the details. Chongqing restaurateurs used small free-range chickens from nearby farms. This poultry became a signature export for Geleshan.
In the 1990s, la zi ji enjoyed an obsessive boom; there is a whole street in downtown Chongqing dedicated to the dish. No matter. As with many provincial flavors, Shanghai restaurants embraced, co-opted and excelled.
Yunnan Gourmet (云南美食园)
B1, 268 Xizang Zhong Lu (Raffles Plaza) 西藏中路268号来福士广场B1楼19-20室, +86 21 6340 3076.
Place: You have to stand like an altar boy beside an occupied table and watch your predecessor enjoy perfect over-the-bridge noodles, inimitable lime drinks and choice dry pots. This is the best Yunnan restaurant downtown, everyone knows it, so it’s unbearably crowded. The staff is jolly and amazingly agile. Though we deeply lament the passing of the “Spiced Fragrant Fish” on a stick (tragically removed from the menu), Yunnan Gourmet is always worth the mayhem. On top of it all, they serve a swell and authentic la zi ji.
Price: RMB 30
Features: Luminous chicken essence
Dish: Served on a doily inside a wicker basket, this Yunnan variety of la zi ji was the most tender of the three on this list. Minute chicken bits exude the flavor of barely cooked chopped garlic. Elusive waves of peppercorn buzz and the fresh snap of bright sesame seeds will keep you pecking at your chicken and roasted peanuts until there’s nothing left but pointed glistening chilies.
Michael Zhen, realtor , Shanghai: “Do you like it? I like it very much.”
Mao Mao, student, Shanghai: “Like my auntie made it, except the sesames.”
Sharon Tan, teacher, Shanghai: “They make it so well here. ”
Verdict: This is a splendid Yunnan interpretation of a Sichuan recipe.
Spice Spirit (麻辣诱惑)
627 Huaihai Zhong Lu 淮海中路627号, +86 21 5306 5777
Place: A lounge of dark enclosures outlined by silvery stanchions of stacked IKEA champagne glasses in cylindrical tubes crowned by crystal balls. Black leatherette benches surround bright Formica tables bathed in showroom spotlights. The high contrast décor is contrived to accentuate the vivid-red chili-loaded dishes. This newly opened chain aims at becoming an upscale version of Spicy Joint, twice the price.
Price: RMB 58
Features: Inflammatory, sensational and forgettable
Dish: The kitchen uses high-quality ingredients and promotes clean and fanciful presentation. If you’re a couple, la zi ji will arrive in two heaps on a porcelain barge. The chicken meat is tender and plentiful; each bite is extra-tingling; the pepper heat is powerful and snappy. But like other dishes on the menu, this la zi ji is a one-shot wonder. After a few bites the only thing that lingers is the heat. A pleasant affair, if you like your chicks without much depth.
Rocket, musician, Los Angeles : “Whoa. Supreme.”
Rider, musician, Los Angeles: “Fire station, man.”
Tilly Guo, bartender: “It’s too spicy for me, I can’t eat it.”
Verdict: A pleasant affair, if you like your chicks without much depth.
Ba Guo Bu Yi (巴国布衣)
1018 Dingxi Lu 定西路1018号(宁夏宾馆旁), +86 21 5239 7779.
Place: This mastodon of Sichuan restaurants keeps their Chinglish archly on the menu. Daily at eight, the canned Viennese waltz dies down and the dashing mask-changing act begins. Over ten years pleasuring tourists, Ba Guo Bu Yi’s kitchen still keeps its Sichuan cookery authentic and its standard very high. This cavernous balconied hall is still the best place to bring your folks from Minnesota. But really, bugger the mask dance and come for the food: it’s stellar.
Price: RMB 49
Features: Complex and delightful.
Dish: Geleshan chicken legs were hacked into tiny pieces, including skin, bones, knees and knuckles. Getting at the meat is a little more labor, but the mouth-work is rewarded. This is La zi ji mastery -- complex, addictive and surprising. The chicken morsels are crunchy and numbing. They slowly release a sweet suggestion of anise that’s not in the recipe but feels like magic in your mouth. Notice the handful of toasted unpeeled peanuts and brined ginger with the texture of apple. Why go to a restaurant that has veal and yak on the menu and order a pedestrian spicy chicken? Because it’s the best la zi ji in Shanghai. Yep. We said it.
Bob Paris, journalist, American: “Wow. Great. I’m moving to China.”
Arseni Popov, publisher, Russia: “Oy! Hot! Please, take my picture with it.”
Joel Saura, travel agent, Portugal: “This is excellent.”
Verdict: Truly, this is the finest, for novices -- and aficionados.