Why you should care
These pockets of meat-filled goodness are worth the unorthodox climb.
When you think of going out for amazing dumplings, you don’t picture yourself climbing up a rickety ladder in a former military community in Chengdu, China, and crawling through an oversize window. But that’s exactly where I found the best dumplings I’ve had in my life: after stepping into a small apartment and into a dense cloud of Sichuan spices.
Dry Chili Chao Shou does not show up in Google. It doesn’t have a Facebook page, nor is it listed with a geotag on Instagram. In fact, the mom-and-pop shop doesn’t market itself at all. Yet the 5-year-old Dry Chili Chao Shou (Gan Hai Jiao Chaoshou, in Chinese) sells out of its homemade dumplings almost nightly.
That’s because this hidden gem serves perhaps the best chao shou in all of China. Even better? China recently eased up its 144-hour visa-free travel rules for Chengdu, so you can enjoy this dumpling goodness — and explore the rest of the Sichuan region — without the lengthy pre-trip visa application. The dumpling style, which originated in Chengdu, the largest city in China’s Sichuan province, is known as “the dumpling of the people,” and is made with square skins that fold around in a crescent shape. Pork is the most common filling.
On any given day you’ll find a gaggle of giddy feasters gorging on piles of meaty, overstuffed dumplings.
“Good and reliable sources of ingredients are hard to find,” says Li Qing, who co-owns Dry Chili Chao Shou with her spouse, Bian Zheng Chuan. “We spent a lot of time searching for it and even went as far as Yunnan and Guizhou to get our ingredients.” The restaurant attracts dumpling enthusiasts with 15 different variations of chao shou, including stewed chicken with yellow mushroom and fish glue, chicken soup with squid, hot-and-sour and the namesake dry chili.
The couple’s dumpling dreams sprung out of necessity in 2014, when both Qing and her husband lost their jobs. They decided to open a restaurant but couldn’t afford the rent of a stand-alone space, so they opened up shop in their own apartment, which is tucked away in a former military community from the 1960s. The ladder-and-window entrance is the best option for getting diners in and out quickly. That is, if patrons can find it.
At first, a sea of cramped, noisy diners at communal tables in the bedrooms may seem intimidating. It’s like you’re walking in on a stranger’s family reunion, except you don’t speak the language — and Grandma’s way too busy to let anyone lick the spoon. But that’s what a top-secret family recipe can do in spice-loving Chengdu.
When they opened Dry Chili Chao Shou, Qing says she “really dove deep into refining and innovating my recipe, contributing to the menu and what we serve today.” On any given day you’ll find a gaggle of giddy feasters gorging on piles of meaty, overstuffed dumplings; the typical serving has at least eight. (And, as the cluttered tables show, one serving is never enough.) In the corner, an assembly line of cooks churns out dumplings by the dozen to stay ahead of the diners’ demands.
However, numerous competitors, including restaurants operated by their own family members, are capitalizing on Dry Chili Chao Shou’s popularity and tough-to-find locale — by launching restaurants under the same name in easier-to-find locations. Close friends and even relatives are “opening copycat shops,” explains Ruixi Hu, a Chengdu native who operates the Lost Plate Food Tour company, which has been making a stop here since 2015. “Those people came over and asked for the recipe, and it’s hard to say no to them when it’s your family.”
Still, imitators have nothing on Qing’s one-of-a-kind recipe and dining experience, she adds. “Sichuan cuisine is so precise, they can never duplicate the soul of the flavor.”
And while the restaurant has become extremely popular — it almost always has a line before it opens at 11:30 am, and it sells out by 8 pm — Qing makes sure early supporters like Hu can find a seat. She also regularly sets dumplings aside for tour-goers (like me). And thank goodness she does because, as a faded yellow paper Scotch-taped to the wall states, unlike imitators, this is the true and original Dry Chili Chao Shou restaurant. Now that — the apartment’s only piece of decor — is worth framing.
Go There: Dry Chili Chao Shou
- Location: The exact location is #71 Building 21, Unit 3, Jian She Road, in Chengdu, China, although navigating this area is challenging at best. If you get lost (and speak Chinese), you can try to call the number listed on the entrance sign: 18980083015.
- Hours: Dry Chili Chao Shou opens at 11:30 am and welcomes diners until it’s sold out of dumplings (typically by 8 pm). Hu recommends arriving by at least 7 pm to be safe.
- What to order: The most popular dumplings are the dry chili chao shou, but don’t miss the equally tasty stewed chicken with matsutake. The heat is turned way down on those, which helped me calm my mouth between spicy bites of the house favorite. Prices range from 12 RMB ($1.75) to 35 RMB ($5), depending on the dumpling style.
- Pro tip: If maps are not your strong suit — or you’d rather not line up before the restaurant opens — you can take a tour that makes a stop here. On the Lost Plate Food Tour, you’ll learn the ins and outs of Sichuan cooking while accessing under-the-radar restaurants and rooftops that even locals don’t know about.