The original Zhang Mama was known for two things: awesome Sichuanese food and the maddening ordeal required to eat it. Wait times – even at off hours – were glacial, and you had to deal with indifferent service and sardine can-like seating when you eventually did get a table. But the grub? Freakin’ great.
So when news arrived that the hole-in-the-wall eatery had opened a second location nearby, it came as a godsend. The new spot boasts two stories (so it should be easier to get a taste of the authentically fiery fare) and the same menu as the original spot. Aside from the larger size, the crowded cafeteria setup of unadorned tables is similar to the original location; drearily functional. There’s little to distract you during that inevitable moment of chilli agony that you will definitely experience at some point.
Pass the (long) time waiting for your mains to arrive by ordering the boboji (3RMB), a big cauldron of oil in which you can dip 1RMB self-service skewers of everything from chicken gristle to crunchy lotus root.
Other appetisers – like the sweet, soy-vinegar zhong shuijiao dumplings (8RMB) or dry, numbing dan dan noodles (8RMB) – are punchy renditions of the classics. Brave types should dare to try the tear-inducing shangxin liangfen (7RMB), rice noodles topped with extremely potent diced peppers. The reward is a layered, sour-spicy smoulder hot enough to purge your body of sin.
After a while you begin to wonder how many truckloads of chilli peppers pass through this place every day. They’re everywhere: red and green dots among the volcanic cubed pork in the Zhangmama xiaochao (20RMB), jolting up fluffy scrambled eggs (jianjiao chaodan, 12RMB), or serving as a link between delicious, fatty, twice-fried pork (huiguorou, 28RMB) and the crispy crunchables that rest underneath it.
But Zhang Mama’s red-hot engine sputters at times. Slices of slippery carp, hiding under the surface of a monumental vat of oil (huo guo yu; 48RMB), are tasteless, and the mapo doufu (12RMB) feels declawed; not tongue-pricklingly crimson as it should. Slivers of paper-thin beef strips (fuqi feipian, 28RMB) are just not spicy enough. They trade their heat in for a salty sheen that misses the point.
Perhaps the over-worked employees simply don’t have the time to take that extra step towards perfection. But that won’t stop the scrum of hip youngsters who can always be found waiting outside the entrance. Zhang Mama, like its signature eats, is so hot right now. Let’s hope they don’t let the standards slip.