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Area: Minzu Daxue (in southern Haidian)
Price: 40 RMB per person
The area around National Minorities University (Minzu Daxue) is good to visit on a Saturday night. Everywhere you look, beers are being cracked open, meat’s being grilled on a fire, bubble tea’s being shaken up, drunken college kids are hugging their friends. “I drank too much!” “Dude, I did too!”
Minzu Daxue is blessed with a series of truly excellent restaurants, including, as we found tonight, pitch-perfect Hunan at Tong Xin Kitchen (童心厨室). This place is well worth a trip: the decor is friendly and cheerful, as is the service. Prices are very reasonable (about 40 RMB per person), and the food is as good as, if not better than, what we ate on a recent trip to Changsha.
Hongshao rou, 红烧肉 or red-cooked pork is a classic Hunan dish, which was given a priceless PR boost when Chairman Mao declared it his favourite. It’s made with pork belly, cooked for a long time with cinnamon, star anise, chilies, and caramelised sugar. Tong Xin’s version was redolent with cinnamon, “richly fat but not greasy,” fei er bu ni, as you would say in Chinese.
In fact, I found Tong Xin’s version far more flavourful than the one I tried at Mao’s family home in Shaoshan.
Tong Xin’s nongjia xiaochao, 农家小炒 or “country house small stir-fry,” was also one of the best I’ve ever had. This is a very potent dish – made with dried pork, green pepper, lots and lots of chilies, and fermented soybeans. The result is super salty, peppery and hot, making the dish very xia fan – “makes the rice go down”. This means it’s so intensely flavoured it keeps you reaching for your rice, and you fill up fast even if there isn’t much to eat.
This was the kind of dish eaten during hard times in the countryside – happily, now mainly enjoyed for its amazing flavour.
Our third dish was a bit of a mystery. It’s called 青炒油麦菜, and we ordered it at our waitress’ recommendation. It was beautifully seasoned, but we couldn’t identify the green, nor can we find it in the dictionary. It did taste great, so no complaints!
Tong Xin Kitchen/童心厨室
26 Minzu Daxue Xi Lu (at the corner of Minzu Daxue Xi Lu and Weigongcun Jie).
Dianping page (including map).
I think I’ve walked past Shu Shijian around five hundred times; it’s very unassuming, sandwiched between a store that sells cute hairbows and a bakery that sells very unpleasant sugar-glazed hot dogs.
I didn’t pick up on the the happy little lineup before mealtimes, or the pots of various oils and spices in the windows. I think I was a little scared off by the photographs of stewed rabbit heads beside the overhead menus. It just goes to show I have a lot to learn! My lunch there today was so good I may even try the rabbit heads next time.
Shu Shijian is a 专卖部, zhuanmaibu, or a shop that sells pre-prepared foods. There’s no seating. You just pick up various meat or vegetable dishes and take them home; it’s a terrifically convenient and economical concept. I loved how sauces for each dish were freshly mixed after ordering. It was exactly what you would do at home, without the fuss of preparing the meat or noodles yourself.
My cool-jelly noodles (川北凉粉) were great, with the slippery, mild noodles playing beautifully off the dressing, which included Sichuan pepper, ground pork, sesame seeds and preserved vegetable. Meanwhile the red-oil rabbit (红油兔丁) tasted lovely, with a sweet but wickedly hot red-oil sauce. Ask for a little extra sugar.
It turns out that there’s only one Shu Shijian in all of Beijing – here’s hoping they expand. But zhuanmaibu style shops are everywhere, so keep a lookout for them, especially those that specialize in Sichuanese foods! And if you’re looking for a delicious takeaway lunch around BNU, go no further.
West side of Xinjiekou Waidajie (新街口外大街), just a few minutes north of Beijing Normal University’s East Gate.
(Note: BNU/北师大 has two east gates, this is the larger, main one, located right beside the LiYun dorm).
(Link to map showing the location of the East Gate; just get there and walk north on Xinjiekou).
Price: 59-159 RMB
Note: SdC Patio is not to be confused with SdC Grill, which is located on a different hutong just east of SdC Patio’s location.
Warm weather is here at last!!! It’s time to eat outdoors in this perfect in-between season. Saveurs de Corée Patio offers not only some of the best Korean food I’ve had in Beijing, but a serene, quiet little outdoor space to enjoy the sunshine while you eat.
We showed up just before 2:30, when the lunch shift was ending, but we were still graciously ushered in.
Ingredient quality is remarkable here, particularly the purple, fragrant rice. All the dishes we had were sensational for their contrasts: crunchy and soft, sweet and sour, cool and hot, rich and refreshing.
Here are the highlights:
Pomegranate soju was incredible. Soju is a great mixer because its flavour is very robust but also gets along beautifully with other flavours. Plus this is one beautiful cocktail.
Deep-fried tofu with pickled onions came with the basic set menu. This is a pure texture dish, crunchy outside and meltingly soft inside. The pickled onions were very strongly flavoured and went beautifully with the bland tofu.
Steamed pumpkin with kimchi was surprising and stunningly delicious. When our first kimchi side dish arrived, we found it too sour – however, it paired beautifully with the sweet and unctuous pumpkin. The flavour grew on us with every bite, the crunchy cold kimchi and warm soft pumpkin setting each other off. This dish alone would make a great lunch with a bowl of rice.
Bibimbap Oh my god so good. The wide bowl produced a ton of crispy rice at the bottom, and the gochujang was excellent quality. As compared to the other dishes, the flavour was a bit bland, but that just meant that the quality and fragrance of the rice had a chance to shine.
Cinnamon tea is spicy and cold and sweet. Boiling cinnamon for a long time gives the tea a kind of smooth, slippery texture – or maybe it tastes so unusually good because it’s missing the mouth-drying feeling that comes from tannic tea leaves. (And cinnamon is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Korean teas).
Street-food style chicken were the best dish by far! Please, please order these when you visit! The drumsticks were succulent, clearly having been braised for a long time in a sugary soy-y marinade, and crisped either by frying or broiling. These were fatty, crispy, sweet, salty, spicy – they hit every button, especially when topped with simple, sweet pickled daikon. These really did remind me of gochujang chicken kebabs I’d eaten in Seoul,
The silken tofu soup was a happy surprise: the broth had obviously been made with a whole lot of shrimp (and garlic for that matter). Tiny shrimp were lurking in the soup, too, which was wickedly spicy, as the waitress warned us. Meanwhile, the silken tofu slides across the tongue like a raw oyster! Great for those that like spicy food in hot weather.
The basic set menu includes banchan, fried tofu, bibimbap and cinnamon tea for 59 RMB- it’s really an excellent deal for this level of quality and service. It’s true that some of the noodle dishes are overpriced compared to what you can find elsewhere, but the set menu is definitely worth it. Our total bill came to 245 RMB – which could have fed 4 at 60 each (we really didn’t expect portions to be so generous).
And as a plus, there’s a mini Korean grocery store next door (and if you’re interested in making Korean food at home, do check out Maangchi’s blog – she deserves her own cooking show!)
Saveurs de Corée/韩香馆
20 Ju’er Hutong (off Nanluoguxiang)
Open 11 a.m. – 11:30 p.m., lunch menu available 11:30-2:30.
Price: 25-50 RMB/person
The “Kuan” in Kuan Dian’s name translates to “wide” but also something like “relaxed and easygoing.” Kuan Dian, however, is not serene. The atmosphere is more like a bustling, grungy college bar, plus food. This is true Beijing-style relaxation: hot, noisy, full of people laughing, putting away beers like crazy and having a great time.
Kuan Dian is always worth a visit, but on weekends, there’s often a line out the door. Best to go on weeknights, or earlier in the evening if you want to get a seat. There’s no English on the menu, so if you can’t read Chinese, bring your dictionary or point-at-what-you-want skills.
My personal favourite dish is their chili mashed potatoes, 自制土豆泥. The idea is simple and perfect: a ball of mashed potato topped with fresh-made chili oil. The spice goes perfectly with the soft potatoes.
The star at Kuan Dian, though, is the chicken wings, 蜜汁鸡翅, glazed with honey and chili flakes. You can pick your spice level, from yuanwei, 原味 (plain) to biantaila，变态辣 (“perverted spicy”). Try that one if you have superhuman spice tolerance – I know if I ever did I would end up in the hospital.
My favourite is weila, 微辣, “tiny spice”. Less chili means the honey flavour has a chance to come out, along with a hit of Sichuan pepper. Delicious.
There’s much more than chicken wings, however. Also good here are the gurouxianglian, 骨肉相连, chicken skewers with barbeque sauce. The menu is long and everything’s good and cheap.
My one problem with Kuan Dian is the wait times. We waited over 15 minutes for our first set of chuar to come, which doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s a lot longer than you expect to wait for chuar, especially if you’re hungry. The next helping came along in another 10 minutes.
By that time, we were ready to demolish everything…
And stepped outside to see this – the Bell Tower lit up for the night.
135 Jiugulou Dajie, Xicheng District, Gulou subway station exit B.
Open every day until 11:30 PM
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).