Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Chomping Thru China: Where to eat in Beijing

Welcome to Chomping Thru China, (中国食记, Zhōng​guó​ shí​ jì) a three-part travelogue about where to eat in different cities in China! This is not a comprehensive guide, it is more just a bunch of places we ate at and liked on our recent visit to China. Get ready for some major taste-bud envy. First up: Beijing!

Black Sesame Kitchen
3 Black Sesame Hutong,
Dongcheng District, Beijing, China 100009

After a full day of going through three boxes of my crap at my friend Rao Shan's parents' house that had been there gathering dust for the last decade, we set out for my Journalism School classmate, Jen Lin-Liu's restaurant/cooking school in the heart of Beijing's old city.

Black Sesame Kitchen (黑芝麻厨房 hēi​zhī​ma​ chú​fáng) is not easy to find, but it is worth the search. The restaurant is in the back of a renovated courtyard in one of Beijing's dwindling historic alleyways. I found this fascinating, because when I left in 1999, a foreigner operating a business in an old hutong would have been difficult to pull off at best, if not impossible (as far as I know). Jen's place turned out to be the first of three surprisingly delightful culinary and brewtastic finds that we came across in the alleyways.

Beijing is famous for its ancient alleys, known as "hutongs," (胡同, hútòng)​. The hutongs date from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and some have cool, whimsical names like Silver Bowl hutong, Chicken Claw hutong, and Big Tea Leaf hutong (where I lived for a little while). Jen's place was in - where else? Black Sesame hutong (黑芝麻胡同 hēi​zhī​ma​ hú​tòng), No. 3 to be exact.

You have to contact BSK ahead of time to make a reservation either for dinner or actual cooking classes. In true last-minute style (and encouraged by my mom), I emailed Jen from the airport in San Francisco a few hours before we left for Beijing to see if she was around. She was nice enough to set us up with a special reservation on short notice and she signed us up for the awesome 10-course dinner complete with wine and the ever-popular Yanjing beer (燕京啤酒 Yān​jīng pí​jiǔ). The food was prepared in sight by Jen's former cooking teachers, and it was a sampling of some traditional favorites as well as some more creative options. Here is a quick look at what we had:

- Pork and pumpkin potstickers (猪肉南瓜锅贴 zhū​ròu nán​guā guō​tiē)
- Fried shiitake mushrooms with coriander and carrots (素炒膳丝 sù​ chǎo​ shàn​ sī)
- Flash fried lamb with leeks (葱爆羊肉 cōng bào​ yáng​ròu)
- Red-braised eggplant (红烧茄子 hóng​ shāo ​qié​zi)
- Wok fried string beans (干炒豆角 gān chǎo​ dòu​jiǎo)
- Red-braised pork belly (红烧肉 hóng​ shāo ​ròu)
- Garlic broccoli with goji berries (蒜蓉西兰花 suàn​ róng​ xī​lán​huā)
- Cashew kung-pao chicken (宫保鸡丁 gōng​bǎo​ jī​dīng)
- Pine nut beef stir fry (松仁牛肉 sōng​rén​ niú​ròu)
- And for dessert: Candied sweet potato with sweet cream (拔丝红薯 bá​sī​ hóng​shǔ)

If you just said "holy crap" (我靠 wǒ​kào) in your head you are well-justified. It was a ton of food for the four of us but we devoured most of it. My favorite were the potstickers. I love those anyway, but the pumpkin gave the filling a delectable creaminess that was a nice twist on the normal version. The crispy fried shiitakes with coriander were also outstanding, I thought.

The sweet potatoes were coated in hot liquid caramel, so you grab a piece with your chopsticks and dunk it in the ice cream to cool it off. This creates long strands of caramel as you pull it off the plate (which is why the dish is called 拔丝, bá​ sī: "pulling threads") and then it makes a shell of solidified sugar as the cream cools it off. Really yummy. I'd be remiss if I didn't also plug Jen's book, "Serve the People: A stir-fried journey through China," which is a great memoir of her time learning to cook all over the country (complete with recipes). The fact that she was in town when we were was pure serendipity, since she was back only briefly before returning to the Silk Road gathering material for another book.

Shunfeng 123
Worker's Stadium, West Gate
Chaoyang District, Beijing

My friend Rao, whose parents were keeping my stuff, organized a mini-reunion of some of our classmates from the no-longer-existent Foreign Language Normal College (外语师范学院, wài​yǔ shī​fàn ​xué​yuàn) where I first went to China for a semester abroad in 1992. It was fun to see these guys, some of who were dorky romantics back in the day, now all grown up and organized with wives and jobs. But they still had a taste for fun and hanging out drinking the local Beijing swill, Er Guo Tou (二锅头 èrguōtóu), a 112-proof liquor loved by all for its extremely favorable cost-to-inebriation ratio.

I remembered that when I first met these guys, we were instructed by the school leaders not to discuss politics of any kind, and we were not to be seen walking around on the street with them (presumably to keep them from getting in trouble). Now of course, we can talk about anything and they can feel confident hanging out with morally bankrupt foreigners such as myself.

Rao set us up with a huge table at a restaurant that he is actually part owner of, called Shun Feng 123 (顺风 123, shùn​fēng yī èr sān). This place is well-known for its Sichuan cuisine, and is an upscale joint just inside the western entrance to the Worker's Stadium (工人体育场 gōng​rén​ tǐ​yù​chǎng).

I did not keep track of all the dishes we had here, but I remember everything I had was really good. We were too busy reminiscing and drinking Er Guo Tou and making fun of each other. I do remember a spicy frog dish (I let that slide by on the lazy susan), and of course Ma Po Tofu, (麻婆豆腐 má​pó​ dòu​fǔ) a classic Sichuan favorite. One feature of Sichuan dishes is the presence of a spice called Sichuan peppercorn, or sometimes prickly ash (花椒 huā​jiāo). It is a strange spice that basically makes your tongue and mouth numb. An acquired taste, but very unique and not to be missed.

After ShunFeng 123, a few of us headed to a bar, Frank's Place, nearby. This place was interesting in that it showed the international side of Beijing, where you could - almost - be anywhere in the world. We ordered Guinness, french fries, and chatted over heavy wooden pub tables. There were a few touches that let you know you were not in College Town, USA. First, you could smoke inside. Second, while the Guinness was a respectable 8-9 bucks, a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon cost a mind-boggling $91 - that's US dollars mind you. We tried to figure out what the deal was, but no one had a good explanation. Someone should find out who PBR's marketing director for Asia is and hire them to do pretty much anything. Admittedly, it is not your average PBR tall-boy. It's called "Pabst Blue Ribbon 1844" and is a special brew only sold in China which comes in a fancy bottle. Still. It's PBR. Come on, China.

Great Leap Brewery and Hutong Pizza
Brewery: 6 Doujiao Hutong
Dongcheng District, Beijing
Pizza: 9 Yinding Qiao Hutong,
Dongcheng District, Beijing

While at the Black Sesame Kitchen, we were alerted to the presence of a real novelty, a Beijing microbrewery. After a morning at the Summer Palace, (颐和园, yí​hé​yuán), where my friend Mark and I procured awesome panda hats (see photo), we high-tailed it back to Dongcheng District to find the place: Great Leap Brewery. This was another hutong gem, located in Doujiao (Bean) Hutong (豆角胡同, dòu​jiǎo hútòng), in a courtyard behind a large steel door, engraved with the words "Great Leap Beer" (大跃啤酒 dà​yuè pí​jiǔ). While the name seemed kind of distasteful, the beer was quite the opposite. The name undoubtedly refers to the "Great Leap Forward," (大跃进 dà ​yuè ​jìn), a political movement in China from 1958-1960 in which an estimated 30 million people starved to death. Mao had decided that drastic steps were needed to propel China into a full-blown Communist powerhouse, so he made everyone melt their metal items to produce "steel" in furnaces that burned everything people could get their hands on including their front doors. Meanwhile, idiotic agricultural techniques were enforced and tons of crops failed or were left to rot. ANYWAY, who knows what the owner was thinking, but like I said the beer was good.

The most distinctive was the Honey Ma Gold, which used the aforementioned Prickly Ash spice to create a little tingle in the aftertaste. They also had a decent porter and the IPA was tasty as well. We had to ask directions to the place, and the guy who led us to it was a local, but had never been in there. One of the staff (an American girl) said locals come by and check it out but don't really get the concept of a microbrewery.

"They either come by and bum a cigarette and leave, or else ask for the strongest, most expensive beer we have," she said.

While we were there, the hostess recommended "Hutong Pizza" (胡同比萨 hú​tòng​ bǐ​sà) for a food choice. We got veggie and meat 'zas, both of which were pretty good. They sure went well with the beers. Crust was a little dry, but overall it was enjoyable, and it was delivered to the brewery, which was key for hungry pandas.

Xian'r Lao Man
252 Andingmen Nei Dajie
Dongcheng District, Beijing

"Not to be missed" is all I can say about this place. Just a few blocks away from the Buddhist Lama Temple (雍和宫 Yōng​hé​ Gōng), Xian'r Lao Man (馅老满 xiàn'r​ lǎo mǎn) is a well-known dumpling restaurant, with dozens of types of dumpling fillings to choose from. The first part of the place's name, Xiàn'r (馅) means filling. It is actually "xian" but since you are in Beijing you have to add the "er" at the end to be authentic in your accent. Being able to read (and speak) Chinese here is a must, otherwise you are stuck looking at the picture-menu, which does not help with the dumplings and only minimally with the other dishes.

You can order a minimum of 10 of each type of dumpling (饺子 jiǎo​zi), and you can either have them steamed or fried. We ordered fillings of egg and chives (鸡蛋韭菜 jī​dàn jiǔ​cài), beef and fennel (牛肉茴香 niú​ròu​ huí​xiāng), the Xianr Lao Man special filling (probably pork, egg, cabbage, shrimp and something), and cilantro and pork (香菜猪肉 xiāng​cài zhū​ròu) (if memory serves). Not only are the dumplings delicious here, the other food is terrific too. But don't just take my word for it (<--links to fun foodie blog Beijing Haochi). We also ordered a plate of kung pao chicken and a bunch of other stuff including the yummy cold-dressed dried tofu strips (凉拌腐竹 liáng​bàn​ fǔ​zhú). Oh and the Beijing favorite, Noodles in Fermented Soy Bean Paste (炸酱面 zhà​jiàng​miàn). So good. We also had a fiesty, cute waitress who served us up with a healthy portion of studied indifference. I was barked at when I asked her for an extra bowl.

That about wraps it up for Beijing. Stay tuned for the next installment, Chomping Thru China: Shanghai!

If you have any other thoughts about favorite restaurants, post them below, and thanks for reading!


Susan Moger said...

Ben, This is so interesting. Thanks for going into details. Amazing to think of the hutong of 1996 and 1998 being a destination for beer and food in 2011. I like the panda hats too.
But especially the info about the reunion with the classmates from 1992. It was so soon after Tainamen; I'm sure that was why the warnings against political chat. I would love to learn more of the conversation with them in 2011, tho since it IS still China, maybe in an email.

Susan Moger said...

Another comment is Beijing Haochi (your link about Xian-r restaurant) what a cute blog! I loved its cheery quirky tone. Do you follow them?

Mark Colacioppo said...

Loved every meal! Glad we had Panda-Ben to translate at Xian'r Lao Man. What a great, hardcore Chinese dining experience.

Hey Ben - when are we opening our brewpub in China? Ha ha.

Great post!

Benjamin said...

Yeah I found Beijing Haochi when googling Xian'r Lao Man. Love it!
One interesting thing about those guys was that some were using the foreign language skills they learned back then: one guy owns a tourism company that caters to French speakers, Rao works in Spanish half the time, Michael emigrated to Canada (English), another guy studied Japanese (can't remember what he was doing) etc.
Thanks Mark! We definitely threw down on that yummy food HARD. and as for Exploding Panda Brewery - 2015? :)

Lewis N. Clark said...

Earlier, a secretary named Oomine Sen-yu (大嶺詮雄, birth and death unknown).. Beijing Interpreter