Chinese Takeout is a bite-sized, biweekly RADII feature that examines Chinese food from the inside out, by disentangling the (hi)stories behind a single dish or restaurant. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.
If you know anything about Chengdu — the capital of Sichuan province in western China — you know that it’s home to two very famous things: pandas and fantastic food.
When it comes to the latter, declaring a favorite place to eat in the city can spark long, heated debates (which ideally take place over a meal). But for Chengdu’s dedicated followers of food, one eatery that’s likely to make most people’s top lists is Yan Taipo’s modest guokui stall near Wenshu Monastery.
The Wenshu Monastery outlet is the main branch of an empire that now extends across the city. Numerous brands have tried to emulate the formula of Yan Taipo (which translates to “Great-Granny Yan”), but few enjoy the loyalty shown to her freshly-prepared, bready pockets of goodness. On our most recent visit to her stall (a pilgrimage we make whenever we visit Chengdu, sometimes multiple times a day), we noticed a rival guokui stand had opened up next door. Yet despite queues outside Yan Taipo that can reach 30-40 minute waits, we didn’t see a single customer at the neighboring stall each time we were there.
The patiently waiting visitors aren’t here for the ambiance. The place basically consists of a cramped-looking kitchen, plus a small table across the doorway for taking orders and slicing and stuffing the guokui. That’s it.
It’s an efficient set-up, with a clear division of labor. One team focuses on preparing the flatbreads; another mixes the fillings to stuff them with; and the “front of house” deals with taking and bagging up the orders.
Diners grab their guokui and wander off in search of a step to sit on or eat as they go, sometimes dripping chili sauce en route like a Sichuanese spin on Hansel and Gretel.
The tastiness of what’s on offer means that customers are happy to forego such luxuries as tables and chairs however, and Yan Taipo’s guokui have a well-deserved reputation about town.
Yan Yinghua is the eponymous great-granny, and you can still find her on occasion at the Wenshu Monastery store flipping breads with a smile. A decade ago, Yan set up a small street-side stall selling a snack that she’d come across in her daughter-in-law’s hometown of Nanchong, in northeastern Sichuan: guokui.
Three years later, in 2012, business was so booming that she moved to a proper, albeit hole-in-the-wall, brick-and-mortar outlet. Since then, she’s trained up a steady stream of Taipo-approved guokui pros who have gone on to open up their own stores throughout Chengdu.
Yan also tells us that she harbors a desire to expand across the country. Who knows? Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, we might see her smiling visage on a New York Fashion Week hoodie.
Somehow Yan Taipo elevates a simple street snack to a culinary object of obsession. So, what’s all the fuss about?
Guokui actually originate from Shaanxi province, but are often oily, fried breads with minced pork and scallions worked into the dough. At Yan Taipo, the flatbreads are briefly baked to make for a drier, puffier vessel for stuffing with a range of fillings. These include bamboo shoots, “wood ear” fungi, and pig snout.
The go-to fillings are the liangfen — rubbery noodles of starch jelly — and the beef, which features thin slices of chilled meat muddled with strips of vegetables, a little like a Sichuanese spin on a roast beef sandwich. Whichever filling you go for, the portions are generous (prices start from just 6RMB, or around 0.85USD) and they’re mixed with an addictive chili sauce that gives the guokui a classic Chengdu kick — and ensures they’ll be messy to deal with.
As China’s street food becomes increasingly sanitized or swapped out for more commercial brands, Yan Taipo Guokui is one name we’d be very happy to see open a franchise outlet on our street. For the moment, the “headquarters” of the Wenshu Monastery shop are a site for foodie pilgrimage that blends a few modern trappings (branded uniforms and hygiene masks, for instance) with plenty of authentic soul.
And if you’re ever in Chengdu and want to discover more deliciousness like this, we highly recommend you get in touch with Chengdu Food Tours — we’re forever in their debt for introducing Yan Taipo Guokui to us.
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