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With mala xiangguo “hot-numbing fragrant pot”, the process is part of the pleasure. At the restaurant outside Beijing Normal University’s South Gate, you’re faced with a list of at least 40 different vegetables and meats from broccoli to bacon. Four or five choices are good for two; my favourites are the lotus root and broccoli, which drink in the chili oil but keep their own flavour.
The ingredients you choose are then tossed in a hot bowl full of oil and spices: chili oil, lantern chilies, deep-fried garlic and ginger, salt, and of course a handful or two of Sichuan peppercorn. You’re at the mercy of the chef and your tolerance: a few too many peppers and it’ll burn like hell. But if the balance between chef and eater is right, you’ll be in hot-and-numbing heaven. A lemony buzz from the Sichuan peppercorn and smooth, rich heat from the chili oil animate the vegetables.
There are plenty of places to get mala xiangguo in Beijing; I like my local hole-in-the wall, but here are some addresses:
Spice Spirit/麻辣诱惑 (Wudaokou location)
28 Chengfu Lu (Wudaokou Shopping Centre) 6th floor, Haidian District
South side of Xueyuan Nanlu (not far from Xinjiekou Waidajie, opposite BNU’s south gate)
And thousands of others…just search 麻辣香锅 on Dianping!
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).
Area: Nanluoguxiang (Dongcheng district)
Price: 80-120 RMB per person
It was one of those eating nights in Beijing that lurches away from the plan, because Beijing is just changing way too fast to keep up with little things like which restaurants have opened, which have closed, which have been knocked down entirely.
We headed out to Amigo, only to find a newly-opened hotpot restaurant where it used to be. (“Try hotpot instead,” suggested the waitress who tried to wave us in.)
Then we looked for a place on Nanluoguxiang where we’d loved the xiangla tudousi. It had disappeared, and we decided it was the place boarded up with blue tin.
Finally we washed up at Baguo Buyi at the south end of Nanluoguxiang. Baguo Buyi, however, is no kind of last-resort restaurant. It’s a safe standby for good Sichuan classics and we knew we wouldn’t be disappointed.
First of all, even on a Sunday night, it was full of happily eating people, in an old-world China kind of atmosphere. (We were in an outer wing; inside the main building it’s lovely. Don’t miss a trip to the bathroom just to look inside).
The menu is full of pleasures for those who know and love Sichuan food. Like many Sichuan restaurants in Beijing, Baguo Buyi is a high-class sort of place, with expensive sea cucumber on its menu and without more homely, delicious dishes like fish-fragrant eggplant (yuxiang qiezi 鱼香茄子).
But they do have lovely fish-fragrant pork slivers (yuxiang rousi 鱼香肉丝). And the star dish, without question, is a showstopper: the crisp intestine (三峡石爆脆肠), which comes on a hot plate covered with sizzling chilis and hot stones there to keep up the temperature. It’s a charming dish but we’ve found it too heavy on the Sichuan peppercorn in the past.
On to what we actually ate this time: my old favourite huiguorou, twice-cooked pork, is less beany here than you usually find. Instead it’s gingery and rich and is served unusually, with little buns to stuff the meat into:
It’s no wonder it’s referred to as huiguorou “hamburger” on the menu.
Then there’s dry-pot cauliflower, with fresh, bright lantern chilis, a little more pork and green onion:
My usual dining companion, my boyfriend David, adores these cauliflower, and so did my parents when they visited Beijing. Actually Baguo Buyi is a great place to bring visitors to soak up some atmosphere along with some chili oil.
The chaoshou (pork dumplings in chili oil sauce) were deemed “awesome.” I mentioned before, dan dan mian is good here as well. It’s all in the nice, wheat-y noodles.
I haven’t yet tried the shuizhuyu, but you should and tell me about it. Experience so far suggests that it would pack a delightful punch.
89-3 Dianmen Dongdajie (at the south entrance to Nanluoguxiang). Dongcheng district.
Opening hours: 11-2pm, 5-9:30pm.
Buses: 42、60、612、701、地安门东下车 (get off at Dianmen Dong)
Price: 50-70 RMB per person
This restaurant has a great location at the top of Nanluoguxiang and is often packed but the dishes disappoint.
If you love Sichuanese food, this place will make you sad.
Shuizhuyu: Looks beautiful, no flavor.
Really, really good basic Sichuan dishes, like yuxiang qiezi and ganbian siji dou are surprisingly hard to find in Beijing. After my favourite spot on Jiugulou got shut down to make way for a Yunnan BBQ (?) restaurant, I’m searching again. Bayu was not the one. Where are your favourite ganbian siji dou/ganbian doujiao?
Bayu Xiongdi Chuancai/巴渝兄弟川菜
121 Gulou Dongdajie, at the intersection with Nanluoguxiang.
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.)