Chain restaurants and hotels aren’t necessarily top dining choices in the US, but in much of Asia there’s nothing wrong with them. And the malls aren’t half-bad either, as I found out with Western Sichuan.
I didn’t expect to go hungry on vacation, it never happens, but Beijing really messed with me. I kept falling asleep around 6pm and waking up in the middle of the night, which caused me to miss two potential dinners because I couldn’t get out of my painfully hard bed. Dining on the fruit left in our room every day wasn’t what I had in mind for Chinese food.
I also never thought I’d be up and at the bus terminal to get to the Great Wall by the 11am cut off (I rarely get out of bed before 10am out of free will) on a Saturday but I was so screwed up that we were left our hotel by 7am. Coffee wasn’t to be found anywhere along the way but we did pick up a two bings from a window we passed. I didn’t realize that starchy disk was going to have to sustain me for the next eight hours.
The Great Wall scarred me enough (no one understands why I found the stairs and heights so frightening and I can’t be bothered to try and articulate it again), the $12 bus ride was borderline traumatic too (we originally thought we’d pay the $25 or so each way that I heard taxis would charge, but in practice I had no idea how to hire one since the language barrier was so thick).
Being the most foreign, a gay German twosome, a non-Chinese-speaking Asian couple from San Diego and James and I were all a bit lost during the ride and even after our arrival at Badaling. We were all paranoid we were going to get left behind. Then the girl who was apparently hosting this trip got in front of the bus and proceeded to do an ear-splitting spiel in rapid-fire Mandarin via microphone that lasted over half an hour. I thought I was going to lose my mind or at least go deaf. It induced the Germans sitting behind us to mutter under their breath in English, no less, “holy hell, please shut the fuck up.”
Then I got my first whiff of stinky tofu. Wow, I thought I was tough—I’ve never understood the hullabaloo with durian—but the festering body part stench started taking its toll on my resolve. At first I thought I was just smelling dirty hair wafting around, and I was, then I got a whiff of decaying corpse and prayed that it was actually food. It was.
After futzing around on the Great Wall for a bit, then deciding I’d seen enough, I would’ve been happy to find one of those evil American chains like Starbucks to grab a coffee and heck, possibly a red bean scone, but I saw no such thing. Hunger had set in by afternoon and all I saw was corn on the cob, roasted sweet potatoes and a ramshackle food court permeated by the aroma of stinky tofu. Argh, I resorted to the apple in my bag and I rarely eat fruit by choice. We Blackberried Starbucks and Great Wall like crazy trying to pinpoint its location and only came up with impassioned anti-corporate rants, no hard details. Thanks for nothing, internets.
It doesn’t take long for leg pains, general malaise and hunger to take a turn for the worse. On the winding journey back into the city I deliriously imagined the bright, shiny food court-plus at Oriental Plaza (there are way more dining choices than listed on their website) near our hotel. We made it there by late afternoon and I was ravenous. Ah…lamb curry puffs: awesome. Beard Papa? I got a puff for later. Oh, and I also popped into BreadTalk where I ogled miniature Hello Kitty cheesecakes. We were overwhelmed with choice for the main event.
Instead of patronizing the food court proper, we picked a peripheral sit-down restaurant. Would mall Sichuan suck? No way. I don’t know if the food tasted better because we were so hungry, but I can fairly say that what might’ve been mediocre by Chinese standards was up there with NYC’s best (which are slim pickings). Not being able to eat leftovers the next day, as is my usual way, we tempered our urge to over order.
Chile oil rules. This cold chicken dish pushed the boundaries of mouth-numbing. I like the ma la tingle, but this was more of a creeping wallop that seemed to affect the sides of the tongue then trickled down the throat. I’m not honestly sure why this is a desirable sensation while eating and why it plays such a role in one region’s cuisine. It does create a fun trick on the palate where beverages like beer or soda taste much sweeter after swallowing a bite of food teeming with Sichuan peppercorns.
Our tamer fresh bacon with chiles is similar to the “enhanced pork” at Spicy & Tasty in Flushing. We probably should’ve also ordered a vegetable to cut all of the richness and spice but two items were plenty. As you can see from the photos, portions are similar to what you’d get at a Chinese restaurant here. I was under the impression that servings would be smaller but that really didn’t turn out to be the case.
This was intended as late lunch but became our only real meal of the day since I fell asleep like an hour later and never made it to Hot Loft, a modern take on hot pot dining, I had scheduled for Saturday night. Jet lag really put a kink in my planned gluttony.
Western Sichuan * Dong Chang'an Dajie 1, Beijing, China