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Global Kitchen

Chu Shang Spicy: Authentic Sichuan Spice in Chinatown

Photo: David Maialetti / Philadelphia Inquirer

As a fresh-off-the-boat South Asian, I used to feel a surge of pride whenever I saw American people struggling with spicy food. Bolstered by the ill-founded confidence a new, westernized palate (mostly french fries and mac and cheese) gave me, I was a self-proclaimed “spice-queen” of sorts in my group of friends. It was not long before Chu Shang Spicy humbled me down.

Tucked deep within Chinatown, Chu Shang Spicy is widely known for its Sichuan-style hot pots. At first glance, its most obvious characteristic is a big, neon-red sign screaming “spicy” at passers-by, almost like a warning sign. Undeterred by this or by the several alarming Yelp! reviews, I ventured in with an audience of four friends to flex my superior taste-buds.

The seating space, though a little narrow, was warm and welcoming. A peppery scent wafted in the air—it was dense with incredible promise. The place was generously decorated with red paper lanterns and traditional Chinese art. Contrary to the preppy Pan-Asian establishments that keep popping up in Chinatown, Chu Shang Spicy had a very, homely old-school charm to it. Right in line with its character, it also seemed to be frequented by families on the hunt for an affordable soup fix on chilly evenings.

In a classic do-it-yourself style, ordering a hot pot at Chu Shang Spicy gives you full creative freedom. You get to choose from a menu of over 75 different items to add to a soup or dry base, and the spice level is adjusted as per your liking, going from “not spicy” to “hot and spicy.”

Upon entry, we were handed a pencil and one piece of paper each, to indicate the items we wanted in our “Ma La Tang”, which translates to “hot, numbing soup.” The menu was vast. It had everything, from the more typical protein options of chicken and beef to the more eccentric ones like pork stomach, bullfrog and pig blood. The vegetarian and seafood options also had a good mix of both traditional and rarer offerings, the stand-out ones being seaweed, enokitake (a type of mushroom) and watercress. The choices were pretty overwhelming—I found myself constantly erasing and rewriting because I was honestly spoiled by the wealth of options and just wasn’t sure what to get.

After a fair amount of warnings by my Vietnamese friend who had eaten here before, I begrudgingly downgraded from “hot and spicy” to the second spiciest option, “medium spicy.”According to her, more chili oil could be added to later adjust the spice level. And she was not wrong. On our table was a bottle full of oil-drenched red peppercorns.

I chose shrimp and lobster as my proteins, complemented by seaweed, mushrooms, green onion, enokitake Pleurotus Eryngii and Mei Fun noodles before finally handing over my list to the waiter who was patiently waiting by our side.

The wait was longer than I am used to with Chinese restaurants. The soups arrived one by one, in five-minute intervals, after an initial wait of over thirty minutes. There was a very gaping language barrier with the waiters which was fortunately filled with my Mandarin-speaking company. In spite of that, the waiters were very helpful and receptive to our feedback and buzzed around the table with water jugs to fill up our cups.

With a spark in my eye, I ferociously dug my spoon deep inside the humongous soup bowl. The time had come for me to display my spice tolerance in front of a seasoned, fellow Asian company. My hopes of grandeur were swiftly dashed. After just one mouthful, I felt my tongue buzzing violently as if it had been electrocuted. The spice was very sharp, and instantly attacked my throat—unlike the spice I was used to which starts off mellow and intensifies gradually, the Ma La Tang proved to be true to its name because the “numbing” was sudden and intense.

After a fair amount of coughing and splattering, I was able to get the attention of the waiter. He was quick to graciously replace my medium spicy broth with mild spicy instead, as my face continued to turn red from both the heat and the embarrassment that accompanied it.

With the heat turned down, the true flavor of the Ma La Tang shone through. It was earthy and piquant and every spoonful was a riot in the mouth. The vegetables were fresh and well-cooked. The mushrooms were my favorite part—they had soaked up the spicy broth like sponges and were surprisingly flavorful as a result.

However, I was disappointed in the shrimp. A full bowl came with only two pieces of shrimp, which were neither deveined nor deshelled. It was a hassle trying to break through the shell and the scant amount of shrimp was hardly enough to add a new flavor dimension to the Ma La Tang which was mostly a vegetable and noodle broth. Despite the copious amount of chili oil added to it, the soup was not too greasy and had a pronounced flavor of its own that wasn’t just heat and spice.

The seaweed was chewy and came knotted in big bow shapes. Frankly, I would have liked it better if it came pre-cut in smaller pieces because it was too hard and slippery to be broken apart by chopsticks.

The soup was generously ribboned with thinly sliced noodles that cut through the tart really well. All in all, the medium spicy Ma La Tang was well-balanced and very filling as it incorporated many different food groups in a nutritious, ambrosial broth.

The Ma La Tang at Chu Shang Spicy is very affordably priced, starting at $7. One serving is more than enough for two people because, by the end of the night, more than half of my soup remained which was promptly packed up by the waiter. Despite its cheap price tag, Chu Shang Spicy isn’t transparent with its add-on prices. The menu gives a range of prices instead of one exact number which can be confusing to decipher. However, less than $10 for a very filling meal works in my books.

Chu Shang Spicy delivers authentic Sichuan flavors with the freedom of customization. Save from a few misses, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal. Chu Shang Spicy has succeeded in climbing up on my ranking of Philadelphia’s Asian food offerings by offering bold, spicy Chinese food with a creative twist at a college-student friendly price tag.