I’m always looking for new Sichuan places, and too often find myself at least a little disappointed. Within the country itself this is one of China’s most popular cuisines, with restaurants serving it throughout any major city. And yet too many of them are toned down for local palates and end up being mediocre. Sichuan Citizen, good as it can be for taking visitors, doesn’t cut if you’re looking for something with the same visceral heat and flavor that you get in Chengdu.
Ben Lai – or Original Sichuan - is the place that seems to come up most in conversations of where to get the best Sichuan in town, and after trying it once, it’s easy to see why. This is easily one of the best Sichuan joints I’ve visited. It’s not just that the food is spicy – which it certainly is – but that it doesn’t compromise on other flavors too. The cold sliced beef, which will seriously take your head off with chili, is also fresh and invigorating thanks to the quality of the meat and cilantro. Dry noodles are thick with chili oil but balanced and not greasy.
The menu in general is pleasantly concise, sticking closely to classic Sichuanese favorites. Most of what you’ll get you can be confident is a real part of the cuisine, not just a tacked-on crowd-pleaser. Crowd were couples and small groups of Chinese friends young and old, generally ordering way too much and apparently having a great time. The vibe in general is modern Chinese local spot, cozy and intimate with a just enough thought put into the design to make it feel unique. Service is good, with waiters seemingly aware that with food this hot you’ll need your water glass topped up regularly.
Only real downside here was the soundtrack. The faint background hum of pumping EDM is kind of off-putting. They should probably sort that.
Finally, really, it’s spicy though. Be prepared for that when you go.
Price: RMB 80 – RMB 150 per person
Summary: Chill, intimate modern Chinese restaurant serving up food that has a reputation for being spicy as hell and for being some of the finest Sichuan in the city. Good for couples and small groups that already love this cuisine or want to really get to know it.
SmartReviews is SmartShanghai’s crack squad of amateur reviewers, eating their way around the city and writing about it. They have been chosen from a large pool of applicants and given a set of strict guidelines to follow to make sure their reviews are honest, informed and fair to both potential customers and the restaurants themselves.