I found Peter Chang, one of America’s top chefs specializing in fragrant and fiery Sichuanese cuisine, cooking in a strip mall 15 miles west of Richmond, Virginia in a town called Short Pump. The meal was completely unplanned and damn close to astonishing.
Chang is a bit of a puzzling dude — a complex figure profiled in both the New Yorker and Oxford American as an enigmatic man with a quick fuse and a habit of running away from restaurants, sometimes days after they open. Some theroies that I have read on the Internet: Peter Chang had green card issues, Peter Chang’s daughter’s education forced him to move around a lot, Peter Chang didn’t like working in dumps, Peter Chang didn’t like working with evil partners.
And so, over time, the legend was born. No doubt, he’s got the credentials to warrant the attention. He began his career after attaining the title of Master Chef and graduating first in his class from the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine which Sichuanese food fans may know as the setting for Fuschia Dunlop’s well-known memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper.
Prior to opening (and sometimes closing) popular restaurants in Alexandria, Fairfax, Atlanta and Knoxville, Tennessee, he prepared his numbing platters at the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C., where he served as executive chef. He has also cooked for the Chinese Premier Hu Jintao. What other Chinese chef in NYC or the entire U.S. for that matter can touch that?
Peter Chang Café is a modest little spot, wedged between a GNC and the Miss Yu Salon. Our party was greeted by a middle-aged man who goes by the name General Lee. He’s a longtime Chang confidant, spokesperson and unabashed hype-man. At the end of our meal, he showed me a stack of well-worn fax pages sent by a New Line Cinema studio executive. If you squinted the right way, it looked like a movie “deal” of sorts.
As I nod with enthusiasm after the first bite of mapo tofu, General Lee was by my side patting me on the shoulder, welcoming me to the cult of Chang. It’s all silk and fire, and gone before we know it.
Dan Dan noodles, a Sichuan specialty, were topped with ground pork worked with soy, sugar, tahini and a quantity of Sichuan peppercorns that numbs the mouth and tongue in just the right way.
Later on, there were strips of dry-fried eggplant—salty and crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside—and dotted with scallions.
And onto the pork belly, a staple of both the southern United States and southern China. It was special, all pork and heat with loads of whole chilies thrown in to dare you. If you land on one, intentionally or by accident, you can cool things down a bit with chilled cilantro leaves.
As the meal wound down, Chang himself appeared and I asked the General for an introduction. I soon found out why Peter Chang is not as well-known as say, David Chang. There’s a language barrier for starters. Lee translated as I thanked Peter for not running away before I could sample his cooking. Peter Chang is a modest gent. While thanking me repeatedly for stopping by, he slowly edged towards his home in the kitchen.
So, is his cooking special? Yes. Is it special for a lonely strip mall in the South? Hell yes!
Peter Chang China Café
11424 W. Broad St.
Glen Allen, VA 23060