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Clockwise from top left: Sugar, cucumber & onion slivers, hoisin sauce, duck meat, plum sauce, duck skin, garlic puree in sesame oil, canteloupe

Cuisine: Peking Duck, homestyle dishes, palace snacks

Area: Xiaoxitian

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.

Toppings, clockwise from top: Green pickled garlic, eggplant sauce, zhajiang (literally "fried sauce" but really salty soybeans), yellow soybeans, tomato-egg sauce, chili oil, and cilantro in the middle.

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

Xiaoxitian branch/小西天店

8 Wenhuiyuan Beilu (Qingya Tower Building B)
海淀区文慧园北路8号庆亚大厦B座(今典花园东门斜对面)
Dianping page
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.

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Lurou fan 卤肉饭 or stewed-meat rice has a humble name but is a classic Taiwanese dish, something you can find in almost every Taiwanese restaurant in Taipei.

It’s all about the stewing broth, which is boiled for a long time with many spices and acquires a delicious savory-sweet flavour. The versions I was served in Taiwan were spare and elegant; just crispy, fatty pork mingling with pure steamed rice.

Lurou fan from the fantastic Eat Rice restaurant in Taipei.

There’s a little lurou fan hole-in-the-wall outside Beijing Normal University’s South Gate, but I tried not to get my hopes up. Sometimes the real stuff can be hard to find in Beijing. Last night I was speaking with a guy from Hunan, and I asked, “where do you go for great Hunanese food?” He replied, “In my own kitchen.”

Fortunately, with the luroufan, I was in for a nice surprise.

This version has a lot more heft than the elegant varieties I tried in Taiwan. There’s the tea egg on the side, the bok choy, the pickles. But that flavour is right. It’s sweet and spicy, with cinnamon, anise, soy all working together.

One bowl is lunch for a very hungry person (probably for one doing more strenuous work all morning than learning the grammatical uses of 才). Make sure you stir everything into the rice first – that strongly flavoured meat needs to be rice’d down.

There are some other lunch options: meat-stuffed bread and chicken-leg rice. Both were deemed “pretty good” by discerning classmates. My top recommendation is the xiangla lurou fan, 香辣卤肉饭, which is the same as the regular version but with a little sandy chili oil plopped on top. Lunch perfection as far as I’m concerned. I’ll go back.

Taiwan Lurou Fan/台湾卤肉饭

Go out BNU’s south gate and cross the street, turn right and look for the “台湾卤肉饭” place.

(For non-BNU students, just go to the Beishida/北京师范大学 bus stop, and turn left onto Xueyuan Nanlu 学院南路. You’ll find it on the south side of the street).

Students at Beijing Normal University are out of the Wudaokou area, so we don’t have many international options nearby. Luckily for us we do have the Xiao Xi Tian Market (aka “Food Street”).

Even if you don’t attend BNU, these few blocks are more than worth spending a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in. They’re a glimpse into middle class Chinese life that you won’t find in Sanlitun or Wudaokou.

The vendors like to chat and ask questions, and you’ll even hear a few stray hellos from passersby. Just today, one of the vendors asked where we were from, and why we spoke Chinese so politely. “It’s because we’re Canadian,” we told her.

Heading south on Wenhuiyuan Xi Lu, first you’ll encounter the little snack shops – where you can get your crossing-the-bridge noodles, all kinds of flatbreads, bubble tea, and pirated DVDs. This area is most lively at night.

Then (if you come from around 4-6 on weekdays, or all day on Saturday/Sunday) you’ll see the vegetable market, my favourite section. Without the market, this area feels like a drab, boring highrise park. With it, especially on a blue-sky day, the street is transformed and full of life. Produce here looks twice as fresh as what you’d find in a supermarket.

At the end of the street, you can turn left onto Hui Jing Lu 慧景路 and find the fresh youtiao beside the goldfish vendor.

A friendly youtiao maker will ask, Ni yao ji ge? How many? One per person is enough.

A youtiao or 油条 is a piece of bread dough, puffed up by deep-frying, until it’s a crisp outer layer enclosing hot, fragrant air.

You won’t forget your first bite of a fresh youtiao. You bite down, expecting resistance, and suddenly a puff of steam fills your mouth, followed by an oily, crunchy, incredibly light dough. If you’ve only had (relatively) stale youtiao before, this will be a revelation.

This is breakfast food, but luckily the stand is open in the afternoon too. (The hours are 7am-10am, then 3pm -6pm).

There’s Peking Duck in the neighbourhood as well, but it deserves a post of its own. The restaurant is called 京味斋 and it’s on Wenhuiyuan Beilu.

Google Map (centered on youtiao street)

Click to enlarge.

Note: Best to visit on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. After walking around the market, have Peking duck for dinner, or eat in one of the hundred or so little restaurants in the area. Then, wander around the snack street after dark).