Editor’s note: We regret to report that La Weixian has closed. However, Mr. Liu is now running a private kitchen out of his apartment.
It was Mr. Liu’s huge grin that first caught our eye, welcoming us into his humble, living room-sized restaurant. Scanning the small space, we suspected we had hit upon a gem: white tile walls, basic stools, vegetables crammed into the fridges in the dining room and fiery red dishes dotting the tables of happy diners – all hallmarks of the down-to-earth eateries we’re always looking for.
As we sat down and he started explaining his specialties, we could feel his genuine interest in having us taste his authentic Sichuanese cuisine, going well beyond just making another sale.
After living in Shanghai for more than a decade, Mr. Liu and his wife brought his younger brother and wife over from their hometown, Zigong, the third-largest city in Sichuan province, famed for its salt mines and the local pickles. Although Mr. Liu continues his side jobs, including as a courier for a local ticket-purchasing platform, the restaurant is clearly his pride and joy – a family business from top to bottom.
He assures us that he has the very best Sichuan food in all of Shanghai, and when we ask according to whom, Mr. Liu flashes us a broad smile and says, “Me!” But then he nonchalantly points to the TV screen over the dining room playing a looped interview from a local food show. “They say so too.”
It’s true that where most Sichuan restaurants will play to local tastes by sweetening their dishes and toning down the spice level, the Liu family refuses to do so. As a result, ordering anything above the lowest level of spice (微辣, wēi là) is basically a mistake, even for the most ardent spice lovers. Oh, you love spice and want a challenge? You’ve been warned.
Mr. Liu’s younger brother is known back home for his knife skills and his thinly sliced giant slabs of air-dried beef, a nationally famous local specialty (自贡火边子牛肉, zìgòng huǒ biān zǐ niúròu). Unfortunately, the restaurant’s small size prohibits them from bringing this tradition to Shanghai. Instead, try the spicy boiled beef (水煮牛肉, shuǐ zhǔ niúròu). Thin slices of beef are tenderized in a fiery broth with sliced asparagus lettuce, bean sprouts and plenty of peppercorns.
Another winner is their twice-cooked pork (回锅肉, huíguō ròu). Pork belly is first boiled, then stir-fried with roughly chopped green peppers, fermented bean paste, leeks, chili oil and other ingredients for a truly addictive dish. It’s one of the most common dishes you’ll find when traveling in the province, and in 2014 the oldest living woman, who was 117 at the time, attributed her longevity to eating the dish three times per day. We’re not sure if we recommend trying that out, but it’s definitely worth an order here.
The menu is all in Mandarin, but there are a few pictures on the wall – his freshwater fish dishes are authentic and worth a try, but, fair warning, most of the other items on the limited picture menu are offal-based. If you’re looking for a few more “safe bets,” we recommend the hot and sour noodles (酸辣粉, suān là fěn) or the “fish-fragrant pork” (鱼香肉丝, yúxiāng ròusī), which doesn’t actually contain any fish. Rather it’s a well-known sauce that was used and popularized by a famous fish dish. And just like you can judge any barbecue joint by its ribs, you can judge a Sichuan restaurant by its mápó dòufu (麻婆豆腐), a classic dish of silky tofu sprinkled with minced pork in chili oil and topped with black pepper and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. It’s not to be missed, and you can ask for a vegetarian version (不放肉, bù fàng ròu)
In Shanghai, where more and more restaurants are going upscale, into malls and towards fancier plating and presentation, the homestyle offerings here keep us coming back for the Chinese food we first fell in love with – affordable, authentic and brimming with so much chili and peppercorns that it frequently blurs the line of our spice tolerance.
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