The best Sichuan restaurants in the metro area have always been outside the Perimeter. There’s the trusty standby Good Luck Gourmet on Buford Highway; the O.G. “ma la” palace Tasty China in Marietta; and the aptly named Masterpiece way out in Duluth. Now come two new Sichuan options more proximate to intowners, which means many of us can more conveniently satiate our hot and numbing Sichuan desires.
The chefs/owners at both Urban Wu in Buckhead and Hai Authentic Chinese in Decatur claim similar bragging rights: They each worked with Peter Chang, the enigmatic former (and founding) Tasty China chef whose nationwide fanbase makes him a touchstone when it comes to Sichuan food. But these two Chang proteges aren’t ripping off the master; their takes on Sichuan feel all their own. Their restaurants have similar menus with long lists of traditional options, but dishes at each are differently and interestingly executed.
Located in the “Disco Kroger” shopping center, Urban Wu is notable for its restrained yet masterful use of Sichuan peppercorns. Dry-fried eggplant is a good litmus-test dish for Sichuan cooking, and Wu’s version is light and less oily than most, making the French fry–like batons crunch just so. The fish in red-hot chili oil is a showstopper that arrives in an enormous, stainless-steel mixing bowl, the slick and gurgling broth teeming with cilantro, dried chilies, and Napa cabbage. You’ll find a milder table fellow in the chicken with three types of mushrooms, a tender and earthy jumble that’s robed in a light and silky sauce.
Compared to Urban Wu, Hai Chinese is more salty and fiery, but it still puts out beautifully balanced food. Chef Hai Wang, who previously worked his way up to chef/partner at Chang’s Maryland restaurant, runs the restaurant with his wife, who’s responsible for the supple Sichuan dumplings that are a proper start to the meal. Noodles abound at Hai, and the dan dan noodles are peerless in Atlanta. When tossed, each noodle gets coated in the salty and umami-heavy sauce flecked with chewy bits of tofu and imbued with Sichuan cuisine’s signature, hot and numbing (aka “ma la”) flavors. Hai’s garlic cucumber salad differs from other versions—the sauce is a bright green puree (practically a pesto) of potent garlic that will knock any flavor out of your mouth. The dish is a fitting companion to the Sichuan chili chicken, whose dangerous-looking chili paste makes it one of the spiciest dishes on the menu.
If asked to choose between Urban Wu and Hai, I’d give the former a slight edge, given the precision of the execution. But since I can get to either in about 15 minutes, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t hit up Urban Wu one week and Hai the next.
★ ★ ★ ★
3330 Piedmont Road
Hai Authentic Chinese
★ ★ ★ ★
2641 North Decatur Road, Decatur
This article appears in our October 2019 issue.