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Cuisine: Czech

Area: Nanluoguxiang

Price: 40-70 RMB per person

A lot of what I like about Irresistible Cafe is the bike ride there. I like riding past places like the Drum Tower, then turning left at the Fire God temple. And you get to feel the buildings getting shorter and greyer as you enter the old city. Mao’er Hutong is particularly nice, with a park on a canal, a Qing-era garden and now terrific Czech food.

Most of the seating at Irresistible Cafe is outdoors, in a beautiful, old-fashioned, leafy courtyard. Cats have the run of the yard, and if you like dogs and don’t mind a playful bite or two, say hi to Da Xiong the husky. There’s something about resident dogs in a cafe that makes me really happy.

Anyway, the atmosphere is lovely and the food is just as good, focused on salads, crepes and Czech beers. The last time I was here I had the avocado salad, which was simple and excellent quality – this time I went for the roasted chicken salad.

Here, there were several surprises: bitter-smoky notes from the cheeses, a nice dressing made from grainy mustard, and, the most unusual, whole mint leaves in the salad. It made a very light, very interesting dinner, perfect for a salad-starved Westerner. Plus, all the salads were in the 30-40 RMB range (making Element Fresh look like a sad, unfunny joke).

The crepes are also very high-quality. The “Prague,” which I tried on a previous visit, is a delicious mix of melted cheese, egg and tomato. And I’m looking forward to trying other menu items, like the papaya salad. The quality, unusual ingredients and price have all enticed me to return twice this week…and I’ll probably be back again and again over the summer.

Irresistible Cafe

14 Mao’er Hutong, off Nanluoguxiang (or turn left at the Fire God Temple on Dianmen Wai Da Jie)
帽儿胡同14号,南锣鼓巷附近 (帽儿胡同也到达地安门外大街)

Cuisine: Chinese Buddhist vegetarian

Area: Meishuguan/Dafosi (just north of Wangfujing)

Price: 35-50 RMB per person

Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns don’t eat meat, nor do some lay Buddhists. So what do they eat? Their own, specialized cuisine, of course, which has been going since the 6th century AD!

As any modern vegetarian or vegan knows, not eating meat can create all kinds of problems. Should I go to that party, accept this invitation, go to that restaurant? Or personal dilemmas, like how can I live without bacon?

Buddhist chefs came up with a rather brilliant solution: inventing dishes that looked, smelled and tasted like meat…but were made from other things, mostly wheat gluten. That way, in theory, the meat-eaters and vegetarians could both be happy at the same table, and the vegetarians could still enjoy the “meat” dishes they once had.

We ran into Still Thoughts on a walk around the Art Museum, and decided to see how it all works in practice.

The atmosphere is brightly-lit and busy. There are shelves stacked with Buddhist texts. Our table was glass over a map of the world.

The menu is a fascinating read for someone who’s never encountered this kind of cooking before. The menu looks exactly like a typical, homestyle-type Chinese menu. They have Peking “Duck,” Sichuanese shuizhu “fish”. There’s nothing these chefs won’t attempt. We tried the pickles (very nice) and a “sausage” (二指禅), which seemed to be a popular item.

To me, the sausage tasted exactly like meat! It was spiced beautifully and had a nice umami richness. I’m amazed at the skill of the chefs that have pulled this off (especially after tasting what passes for mock meat in the West, aka Tofurkey). My companion was not as convinced, but truly enjoyed and ate most of it.

Next up was the “beef” and potato stew, which the waitress recommended. This was even more challenging – but when the dish turned up, it looked entirely convincing.

The meat tasted wonderful – exactly like beef! It turns out, though, that the hardest thing to imitate about meat is its texture. This “beef” had the texture of glutinous rice – if you’ve ever had mochi, you’ll recognize it. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the dish and, while it might bother others, I didn’t mind the texture at all.

To finish the meal, we had pumpkin soup – this was stunningly good. It was almost completely unspiced, in contrast to the “pumpkin pie” flavours I’m used to. It was lovely to enjoy that pure pumpkin flavour.

Of course, mock meat will never really be the same as real meat, but it does allow you to really enjoy the flavour of meat dishes with your compassion intact. If I were vegetarian, I would be here all the time – the atmosphere is pleasant (a monk or two even strolled by as we ate) and the food is well-prepared. The skill and invention required to make meat substitutes is dazzling, and the nerd in me loves to eat dinner and reach a centuries-old tradition all at once.

Still Thoughts/静思

18A Dafosi Dongjie, Yuqun Hutong (turn right onto Yuqun from Dafosi, which continues from Meishuguan Dongjie), Dongcheng District
东城区美术馆北大佛寺东街甲18号(育群胡同西口)

Open 10 am – 11 pm

See Dianping page for map and Chinese-language reviews.