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Cuisine: Traditional Beijing (Hui Muslim)
Price: 5-20 RMB per person
English menu available
Li Ji Traditional Snacks, sitting in a narrow hutong just north of Houhai, specializes in traditional sesame buns, or shaobing. They also offer a small-but-excellent selection of other Beijing classics, like boiled tripe and lamb soup. (You won’t find any pork here – Li Ji is run by Hui Chinese and is halal only).
The shop is well-known among Chinese visitors, resulting in an interesting mix of customers. Tattooed Hui guys and bearded lao Beijing grandpas rub elbows with iPhone’d xiaojies posting their shaobing excursion on Weibo.
Li Ji is managing its popularity with grace, resisting the neon craze going on in most of Houhai. The prices are low and their hospitality is genuine. A smile and a polite question or two are enough to get invited into the open-air kitchen, where you can see the shaobing being rolled by hand.
The dough, to which sesame paste is added, is stretched and twisted until it makes a bun filled with hundreds of thin, soft layers. The outside is then dipped in sesame seeds and baked, making a flaky, tender bun that’s an excellent vehicle for silky slices of beef (just ask for shaobing jia niurou, 烧饼夹牛肉).
You can also have your shaobing plain, with ma doufu. Ma Doufu isn’t exactly good to look at; its name translates to “freckled/spotted tofu,” and it’s a kind of off-brown colour. It is, however, good to eat. It’s made of mashed, fermented mung beans, and was traditionally eaten by Beijing’s poor (perhaps since ma doufu was considered an unwanted byproduct of the classier douzhi, fermented mung bean juice). It’s usually fried in lamb fat and topped with a little chili oil.
Don’t be put off by its colour: ma doufutastes rich, sour and oniony. It’s an unusual taste, but I liked it on my very first try. In fact, the combination of ma doufu and shaobing put us in mind of bagels and cream cheese – a sesame bun and a fatty, savoury topping. I’ll be back the next time a sesame craving hits.
Li Ji Traditional Snacks 李记传统小吃
(sometimes known as Longxingsheng Snacks or 隆兴盛名优小吃)
19 Ya’er Hutong, Xicheng District (near Houhai’s Silver Ingot Bridge)
Cuisine: Jiaozi (dumplings) and Sichuanese
Price: 30-60 per person (ordering dumplings is much cheaper than the Sichuan menu)
I used to be a serious jiaozi-hater. The fillings always tasted the same: meat drenched in too much soy sauce. They’d be filled with almost-raw chives, or have wrappers that fell apart. It didn’t seem to matter what we ordered; they all tasted the same! Every time I ate them, I would make unfavourable comparisons with ravioli in my head and promise myself never to spend money on jiaozi again.
It took Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu’s creative, clever jiaozi to change this dumpling-hater’s mind. Their jiaozi wrappers are beautifully coloured – orange, purple, green – making a cheap meal feel festive. (This makes up for their being a little too thin and loose for my taste).
But what really makes Baoyuan’s jiaozi great is the combination of ingredients in the fillings; they’re fresh, innovative, and texturally interesting as well.
Their lotus root and zucchini dumpling (below, left) was delicious! The lotus root, chopped fine, was very crunchy, contrasting with the soft zucchini. This dumpling’s delicate flavour matched nicely with the vinegar at the table.
The smoked pork, radish and chili dumpling (below right) was very, very fiery. Chili addicts will love the mix of chili heat and savoury, fatty smoked pork. The radish added sourness and crunch.
Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu has a Sichuanese menu as well, but we decided to focus on the dumpling offerings. However, a stir-fry of pea shoots (清炒豆苗) was very refreshing, salty with barely a touch of oil.
Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu 宝源饺子屋
North of 6 Maizidian Jie, Chaoyang District (it’s not hard to spot if you look out for a big red-and-white sign with the name of the restaurant in characters).
Open until 10 p.m.
It just doesn’t get more Beijing than a plate of dumplings.
Xian Lao Man is in my estimation one of the better places to eat them, and drink up a uniquely Beijing atmosphere.* If you go at the right time, the restaurant is packed and noisy, bright lights, very chaotic, just the way it should be. Order a jug of sour-plum juice (酸梅汤) and appreciate where you are.
Their dumplings are really well-done, with taut, thin wrappers, fresh fillings, with the dumplings just the right size to eat in two bites. I like them made into guotie (i.e. fried), it makes for a crunchier, more interesting texture. They come with plenty of fillings – I especially liked the pork-and-corn (猪肉玉米) variety.
And that crispy-skinned fish-fragrant eggplant (鱼香脆皮茄子)! What a star! What an exciting dish! Fish-fragrant eggplant, with its sweet-sour-spicy sauce, is always delicious, but here the skins were crunchy, adding a fun textural element and making the dish new again.
We were clearly not the only ones who liked Xian Lao Man. “After eating there regularly,” said one Dianping reviewer, “if I go elsewhere, I feel the dumplings are oily or just too big. Xian Lao Man really is better.”
Xian Lao Man/馅老满
252 Andingmen Neidajie/安定门内大街252号
316 Dongsi Beidajie (at the intersection with Dongsi Liu Tiao) 东城区东四北大街316号(东四六条西口)
For full list of locations see the Dianping page.
*As it happened, I was reading City Weekend’s best restaurant guide while eating. Xian Lao Man was not mentioned. In fact, of their many categories only two Chinese restaurants were mentioned: Da Dong and Din Tai Fung. Do they know what City they are in?
Daoxiangcun Grocery is packed with interesting foods, but ma la su, a crisp mix of sesame, chilies, and peanuts, deserves a little special attention.
In the store, you can’t miss it – its bright red colour shines out from the white breads around it. I can’t eat peanuts, so I recruited a tasting assistant. The verdict:
“This is basically the perfect snack food. The photo makes it look like a bit of a mess, but it’s dry on the hands and the heat isn’t overwhelming. The sesame seeds, just a little sweetened, add enough moisture to make the mix easy to chew. It’d be great with beer or while watching a movie–and it was cheap even by Chinese standards!”
(It was 3 RMB for our little bag).
Generally speaking, Daoxiangcun is a very fine store, with terrific Dianping ratings at just about every branch. They serve up a variety of prepared meats, dumplings, tiny cakes, and cookies. There’s almost certainly one in your neighbourhood, so go check it out!
Many, many locations. If you read Chinese, check out this Dianping page. If you don’t, copy and paste “稻香村” into Google Maps to find the closest one to you!
Cuisine: Traditional Beijing desserts
Price: 10-15 RMB
Walking down Nanluoguxiang at night, you’ll see plenty of brightly lit and not-good snack joints. One snack shop, however, stands out from the masses for two reasons: 1) it is actually old, and has plaques on the shopfront saying as much, and 2) there is always a large queue of happy-looking Chinese tourists outside.
Wen Yu Nailao could be translated as “Wen House Cheese,” but Chinese nailao and European cheese are very different animals. There is only really one type of nailao, which is milk curdled with rice wine. It’s not fermented or aged. It’s more like a loose, very soft custard, served cool and slightly sweetened – a refreshing summer dessert.
There’s a nod to nostalgia in the setup: you order at the ordering counter, and take your ticket over to the food counter. Like any great specialty shop, Wen Yu’s offerings are limited but perfect as they are: you can have your nailao plain, or topped with mango, red bean, or oats.
My mango-topped nailao was mild, gentle, and had just the right amount of sweetness. I really loved the texture, which reminded me of a full-fat yogurt: very rich and full-bodied. It mixed very nicely with the fresh, sweet mango. I bet the other toppings would be terrific too.
This is a great light, after-meal snack – but be warned, the shop opens at noon and stays open until everything sells out, so the earlier you get there the better!
And don’t forget to keep a lookout for 奶酪 signboards, because the snack is all over Beijing, though most stores aren’t as old as Wen Yu’s.
Wen Yu Nailao/文宇奶酪
49 Nanluoguxiang, at the entrance to Heizhima Hutong. Open 12 p.m. – late.
Huguosi snack shops are very traditional, very old-school bakeries and restaurants run by Hui Muslims. The shops’ namesake, Huguosi or “Protect the Nation Temple,” was once located on the west side of Xicheng district. Sadly, the temple was mostly knocked down in the 50s, but the little traditional snack shops on the same street (Huguosi Xiaochi Dian, or 护国寺小吃店) are still going strong and now have plenty of locations throughout the district.
These foods may be traditional, but they are popular. I hardly ever walk by the shop near Beijing Normal University without seeing a lineup of people stocking up on various red-bean-stuffed goods.
I really like the savory mahua 麻花, dough strands which bake up very hard and crunchy. It offers a salty, crispy, sesame-y bite.
Date bread is terrific, heavy and soft, with the date flavour permeating the dough. It’s more like a cake than a bread.
I also love the coconut-covered, red-bean filled pastries (just look for the coconut, they’re not hard to spot). But really the best thing to do here is point that everything that looks good and taste for yourself!
Huguosi Xiaochi Dian/护国寺小吃店
Google Map of locations throughout the city (concentrated in Xicheng district).
Also see this longer and more detailed post by Beijing Haochi on the actual meals you can eat at the largest “snack shop” on Huguosi street itself.
Beijing has introduced me to the concept of restaurant as historical artifact.
Liu Zhai Shi Fu means “Liu House Cuisine.” There’s a plaque in the entrance hallway and a kind of dusty feel that makes you suspect that time here stopped in the Qing Dynasty.
In fact, the Liu family has lived in the courtyard for over a hundred years (they opened the restaurant a decade or so back).
We stopped in for a cup of jasmine tea.
We’re planning on going to eat soon. To quote Haw Berries & Kumquats,
Their mastery of simple dishes like cold cucumber or fried eggs and wood ear is mesmerizing.
Liu Zhai Shi Fu/刘宅食府
8 Jiangjia Dayuan Hutong, off Meishuguan Dongjie. Opposite the Sanlian bookstore.
Open 9:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Cuisine: Peking Duck, homestyle dishes, palace snacks
Price per person: 40-80 RMB
Beijing’s restaurants are of wildly varying quality. But there’s one thing you can say for this city, and that is that the duck is always done right. Take Jing Wei Zhai for example. It’s a lesser-known chain restaurant (there are 11 branches in Beijing). But here, a seriously delicious duck can be yours for under 40 RMB a person.
First, you’ll be greeted by cheerful ladies dressed in red.
Then, you’ll have to choose what to eat from a menu with a mix of traditional Beijing dishes and popular Sichuan ones. We opted for stir-fried cabbage (see a great recipe on Beijing Haochi!), the restaurant’s famous zhajiang noodles (炸酱面) and “rolling donkeys” （驴打滚).
The “donkeys” are really glutinous rice rolled around red bean paste and coated in toasted soybean flour. I love a bite of sticky, chewy, glutinous rice, and these have the added fun of coming from the menu’s “palace snack” section. At this restaurant you are literally eating like a king.
Then you get to season your noodles liberally from the noodle-sauce bar. I may have gone a little overboard.
And then the duck arrives. You may already have caught a glimpse of a serious young man slicing it at a distance.
I love that the duck comes with canteloupe, as well as plum sauce. I like one strip of canteloupe and one of cucumber in my duck roll. I also like piling on the garlic until my dining companion chokes a little bit. There’s no fussing with sea cucumber-duck dishes or duck-related paraphernalia coming to your table here. Just damn good duck. And you can enjoy it with a cheap bottle of Yanjing. You can come on a weekday in a hoodie. Duck minus a dress code. I love it.
Jing Wei Zhai/京味斋
8 Wenhuiyuan Beilu (Qingya Tower Building B)
Open 10:00 a.m. – 10 p.m., according to the sign, but after lunchtime they tend to take a break until 5:30.
There are, as I mentioned above, a bunch of other branches in Beijing. Just type or copy “京味斋” into your nearest Google or Baidu Map to find the one near you.
Plus: if you’re in this neighbourhood in the afternoon, check out the Xiaoxitian market.
Cuisine: Donkey meat
Areas: Gulou, Huguosi, Xinjiekou, Dongsi, Shoupakou
Price: 15-30 RMB per person
In Gulou, where I used to live, donkey is popular. It feels like there’s at least one donkey-meat-sandwich hole-in-the-wall restaurant per block. If you’re not sure about the idea of donkey meat, it tastes a lot like beef – and the most popular way of eating it, in a garlicky sandwich with crispy bread – is delicious, even addictive, and perfect for a cold Beijing night. Why not?
If you’re going to give donkey a try, the best place to go is Fat Wang’s Donkey Sandwiches (Wang Pangzi Lürou Huoshao or 王胖子驴肉火烧).
Why is Wang’s the best? First, Beijingers rate it the number-1 restaurant in its price category (15-24 RMB!!!!) on China’s version of Yelp, dianping.com.
My neighbour in Gulou, a cheerful 80-year-old man with one tooth, liked to ask me if, and what, I had eaten. If I said, “donkey sandwiches,” he would say, “ahaaah! Fat Wang’s Donkey Sandwiches!”, sounding very pleased.
Second, the happy, friendly, waitstaff, who hang out around the door to the tiny kitchen.
And finally, the donkey meat. Wang’s serves nothing but donkey meat! You can in fact order it by weight, order various body parts, get donkey soup, etc., but the most popular dish is the lǘròu huǒshǎo, 驴肉火烧, the first item on the menu, at 6.5 RMB for one.
One is usually enough for me, but hungry people will want two each. The meat is tender, the bread is oily and flaky. Ask for a dish of garlic sauce, (suànzhī 蒜汁） to add an extra kick.
Side dishes are excellent too, my favourite being the suānlà báicài 酸辣白菜，a spicy and vinegary cabbage salad, basically a coleslaw that’s actually exciting. Those who’d like a milder accompaniment can try one of the various plain porridge, (zhōu 粥) sides.
80 Gulou Xidajie, Xicheng district. Gulou subway station, exit B.
113 Huguosi Jie, Xicheng district. Ping An Li station exit B.
92 Dongsi Beidajie, Dongcheng district, Beixinqiao station exit C.
66 Xinjiekou Dongjie, Xicheng district, Jishuitan station exit C.
71 Shoupakou Nanjie, Xuanwu District, Liuliqiaodong station (then the bus, it’s a bit far from the station).
Anyone making a trip to Bed Bar for the best mojitos in town should definitely make Kaixin Lai part of the evening as well.
This little hole in the wall serves up chuar, spicy chicken wings, etc. – These are all good late-night snacks, but their xiangla tudousi, or “spice-fragrant potato silk,” might just be the best drunk food known to man.
I don’t believe that xiangla tudousi is on the menu, so you’ll just have to ask: xiānglà tǔdòu sī or 香辣土豆丝. But the waiters always know what you’re talking about, and when it comes, it’s worth the effort:
Xiangla tudousi is made of deep-fried julienned potatoes – shoestring fries – fried in chili-garlic oil. Tossed with cilantro and a little bit of sugar, it’s crunchy, spicy, sweet, salty – it hits every note, and craving, perfectly.
Another winner is yuxiang qiezi, 鱼香茄子 or fish-fragrant eggplant. Kaixin Lai’s version is, amazingly, not too greasy, and the sweet and sour notes are perfectly balanced. They use a lot of pickled chili to great effect, and it looks nice too:
Chuar is good here as well – but nothing different from the thousands of other chuar places around the city. Kaixin Lai’s main problem is consistency – not really surprising for a hole-in-the-wall type place. In five visits, the potatoes were slightly burned once, and another time the waiter forgot our order. Don’t be afraid to complain – you’ll usually get what you want. And Kaixin Lai is always good enough to keep me coming back.
Kaixin Lai Wing & Chuar Bar. 100 Jiugulou Dajie， at the intersection with Zhangwang Hutong. Gulou subway station exit B. Open every day, from before noon until around 2 a.m.
(FYI, to anyone who also loves late-night poutine, there’s another hole-in-the-wall called the Box serving poutine across the street.)