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Posts from the ‘Beijing’ Category

Han Cang

Han Cang was one of my favorite meals in Beijing so there’s no logical reason why it’s my next-to-last Chinese restaurant recap (oh yes, there’s still one more that I refuse to drag into the new year). The food is Hakka, which didn’t mean much to me and I still don’t have a full grasp of the cuisine. Hakka noodles are the only dish I know and these are something you’d eat at a Chinese-Indian restaurant. Not Hakka at all, I think, like how we call curry-powdered noodles Singapore noodles but no one eats them in Singapore. Or like English muffins, for that matter.

It’s not the easiest restaurant to Google or find because I’ve seen the name written Han Ceng, Kejia Cai, Ke Jia Cai and more ways than that. And there’s not really an address; it’s on the Southeastern edge of Houhai Lake across a busy street from Bei Hai Park. And if I’m correct, the only signage is in Chinese characters. I only knew we were at the right spot because I’d scoured the censored internet for photos beforehand (I never realized how much I used Wikipedia until it was gone). But it’s not like the cavernous, wood-and-stone styled place is hidden. Our only trauma in finding it was fighting our way through overzealous hawkers as the sunlight started fading.

I have surprisingly little tolerance for aggressive touts, despite growing up in a city that might have the highest per capita number of panhandlers, homeless, junkies and runaways (I always suspected Portland was also the whitest [major] city in the U.S. and this has proven true). I’m never rude, but you can only fend off so many rickshaw rides, massages, postcards and coffee table books while being beamed with laser lights and squeezed next to by slow-moving cars that seem inappropriate on a narrow path, before becoming exhausted.

The lake might’ve been pretty but it’s not like I could stop and take in the natural beauty before being accosted by peddlers. Plus, it turned bitter–wool coats, hats and mittens cold–on our last night in Beijing and I had only packed a light three-quarter sleeved, corduroy trapeze jacket (it was still hot in NYC when I packed and I hadn’t had enough opportunity to wear the thing yet). We were burned out and ready for Shanghai.

The Houhai district appears to be a magnet for bar goers, but I am confused by mentions of it being trendy because it didn’t feel that way to me at all. Maybe I just don’t understand Chinese culture because a New York idea of trendy is very different. I was imaging something foul like the Meatpacking District but it’s more like Prospect Park if there were lots of bars and restaurants around it (that’s a really bad analogy because we don’t have any massive man made or natural lakes here) I would say expat-friendly rather than trendy. I wouldn’t say yuppie, one, because I hate that word, but two, because I think of ‘00s yuppies as being into flash and status, kind of Hong Kong-style and this neighborhood in Beijing was more ramshackle boho chic.

Han Cang (and a few whiskies at No Name Bar up the lane, which we passed by like ten times trying to deduce if it was the right place or not. True, it had no name but it didn’t seem terribly hard to find, no more hidden than your typical well-publicized yet “clandestine” NYC speakeasy. I did get to pet the cat) brightened our evening. The vibe was rough-hewn and raucous, though more upscale than I’d expected (not truly upscale—I still had to pee in a hole in the ground). Maybe it was the big bottles of Yanjing that everyone, including us, was drinking that improved the mood.


I'd heard about salt-baked shrimp. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but each crustacean was individually skewered and served twelve to an order in a damp wooden bucket of salt. Kind of cooler than a KFC bucket. They involve a bit of finger and tooth work to eat; that is if you’re a shell-peeler. I usually just crunch on mine. But they are quite salty, which you really notice if you eat them whole.


Oh, the tripe again. Sometimes I show concern for fellow organ-averse diners and compromise on an appetizer. Other times I selfishly get the tripe anyway. It was our last night in Beijing so I cut loose with the spicy stomach shreds. I don’t know what the vegetable was, though it seemed wet and chewy like something more from the sea than the land.


Three-cup duck. Nothing fancy here, and that seems to be the Hakka M.O. Three cup refers to soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine. Or at least it does with san bei ji, Taiwanese three-cup chicken. I’m assuming the two dishes are related. This is the kind of thing that seems so simple and deeply flavored but that I can never reproduce at home. I’m not sure if it’s the proportion of ingredients, cooking vessel or what. I can’t really chop up a bird with the knives I own, so I don’t go down this path much anyway. Hey, a cleaver—that’s a great Christmas wish list idea.

Han Cang * S.E. bank of Qian Hai, Beijing, China

Made in China

Originally, I had no plans to eat at Made in China. (The name seems even more ironic now that Americans are hell bent on avoiding everything Chinese made. It seems like every day work I find a new toy recall survey to glean data from) But as I mentioned while discussing Da Dong and Quanjude, we showed up randomly on a Sunday afternoon out of Peking duck desperation. It wasn’t like we had to go out of our way. Made in China happened to be in the Hyatt (“five star all the way”) which also happened to be attached to Oriental Plaza, the mall a few blocks from our hotel that we took a shining to. Our impromptu lunch ended up being our most expensive meal in Beijing, though the tab did get a bump due to a few gin and tonic-esque cocktails, made with Maotai.


We didn’t have reservations so we were delegated to counter seating facing the dumpling-making station. It didn’t feel like a punishment. It turned out the duck wasn’t available so we defeatedly ordered beggar’s chicken, which we almost didn’t get either. I didn’t understand the hubbub or the “it’ll take 40 minutes” business, but as I discovered that was because I didn’t understand beggar’s chicken.


I had no idea it was so elaborate. Other people were eating simple handmade noodles and dumplings and here we were with complicated orders. Beggar’s chicken is stuffed with various things (in this case salted plums, ginkgo nuts…and I can’t remember what…maybe, lily buds?), wrapped in lotus leaves and baked in a shell. The sweet, salty and funky preserved quality of the mysterious purplish stuffing was unique.


For some reason I thought it was salt-baked but all the recipes I see say that it’s encrusted in mud or clay. Maybe traditionally. It’s a big production and James was asked to ceremonially crack open the casing with a mallet. Men get to have all the fun.


If I knew we were getting a whole chicken, I would’ve been more restrained in further ordering. I also chose a claypot of beef, pumpkin and chestnuts from an autumn menu. The stew also contained noodles that I couldn’t figure out because they were so light and springy like nothing I’ve had before. I suspect that they didn't contain wheat.


The spinach looks like it’s dressed in a plain sesame sauce but it’s spiked with a spicy mustard.


I thought pork knuckle in chile oil would be just that, but it was presented fancily as a sliced terrine.

The food at Made in China wasn’t like anything else I ate on vacation. It’s not easy to balance hearty with refined. The flavor combinations and use of ingredients were complex and not what I expected. I do still wonder what they would do with Peking duck.

Made in China * 1 E. Chang An Ave., Beijing, China

Da Dong & Quanjude

Duck versus duck. Even though Peking duck is a Beijing specialty, one meal in town would seem like plenty. I thought so, and did a lot of research narrowing down our choices to four: Quanjude, Li Qun, Made in China and Da Dong. I ultimately decided on the latter. Quanjude is the biggie with lots of name recognition but too touristy. Li Qun? I don’t recall why I nixed it. Made in China felt like where you’d take a foreigner to impress them with stylish (and expensive) versions of local dishes. Da Dong seemed just right.


This was one of the few occasions where having our hotel call for reservations paid off, though we had no control over the dining time. We asked for 8pm on Friday and were told we’d be eating at 6:30 pm, which we quickly learned was more typical (this was our first restaurant meal in China). We also learned that cash is de rigueur, even when buying things like plane tickets. We showed up 15 minutes late, having no concept of heavy Beijing traffic and how taxis avoid white people like the plague (I don’t even want to contemplate how black tourists must fare). Hungry crowds filled the windowed front waiting area while we were immediately seated. I’m surprised they didn’t give away our reservation.


Despite being a bargain at a shocking $12 (I was initially surprised at how inexpensive Beijing was. This was a seriously good value vacation–I almost spent more in Miami over Labor Day weekend than we did in nearly two weeks in China), we couldn’t justify ordering a whole duck just for the two of us. But as it turned out, a half order, while pristinely sliced and presented, was meager for our gluttonous tastes.


Da Dong’s claim to fame is a leaner bird, less fatty and healthy. I don’t know about the healthy part, but it was a classy duck. There truly was very little fat; the skin was shatteringly crisp with little sections placed atop the dainty meat pile to be dipped in granulated sugar. I loved the array of condiments: said sugar, garlic, cucumber, spring onions, radish and what I think was bean paste. Options and multiple sauces always sway me. I knew right then, that Dadong was the right choice.

Cold bamboo shoots with scant chile slices. These weren’t terribly spicy.


Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice appeared on a lot of menus. I never tried another rendition for comparison, but this sticky dish was very sweet and candied, almost more of a dessert than what we were brought for that course.


Ack, our first meal introduced us to the Chinese melon plate for dessert. I’ll admit this was an impressive version with dry ice and a few crab apples (which must be a local favorite—you see them sold candied on sticks, kabob-style, all over). But they didn’t stop with the fruit. Oh no, sesame pudding, a.k.a. black sludge also appeared after our food was cleared. I don’t have a problem with these types of desserts but after a heavy meal the thick, bittersweet sludge didn’t seem very refreshing. I think the only acceptable American treats that are this less-than-appetizing color are Oreos.


After Da Dong, we were left wanting more. If taxis weren’t so troublesome, we seriously would’ve headed to another roast duck restaurant. Another excursion was going to have to be factored into our schedule. We attempted lunch at Made in China two days later but it turned out to be an item that had to be ordered in advance. Damn. So, we ended up going regionally inaccurate and tried the Quanjude branch in Shanghai.

It was sort of asking for trouble, eating at a so-so chain in a city not renowned for Peking duck, but we were desperate. Compared to Da Dong, the clientele was tourist-heavy and the service more lackadaisical. Even the Chinese didn’t appear to be locals. (I was fascinated by a nearby table with a middle-aged French couple and two totally artsy hipster Asian girls who spoke both Mandarin and French. I’m not sure that they were Chinese, not that a Chinese girl couldn’t speak French.)


Half a duck wasn’t even an option here, so we got more than our fair share. In fact, we ended up making little wraps with the extras and hid them in our bags like old ladies getting the better of a buffet. Communicating was tough, so asking for our leftovers to go wasn’t even worth the bother. Tonal languages will kill you. We asked one waiter for the check, trying to say “mǎi dān” as correctly as we could, and got a confused shrug. Another waiter later came by and said, “mǎi dān?” which I swear sounded just like what we’d tried to articulate.


Quanjude was closer to the Peking duck you’ll find in NYC, and I think it made James happier. The slices were kind of sloppy, the pancakes had adhered to each other and accompaniments only included plum sauce and scallion. Bare bones, yet wonderfully oily and irresistible. The meat was almost minerally. I did notice that the ducks at both restaurants had a meatier, richer flavor than the ones you get here.


I had to order chile tripe even though I knew we wouldn’t get through much of it. I’m starting to think that I have a tripe fetish—I’ve eaten four times in less than a month.


I’m still not clear why this “fish fragrant” eggplant dish caused a ruckus. Our waiter seemed very concerned that I chose it and had to get an English speaking staff member to come over and make sure we understood that it contained pork. Er, do I look Muslim? Or like a pork-hater?  Clearly, we weren’t vegetarian since duck and tripe were also on order. I was aware that fish fragrant/yu xiang is a garlicky Sichuan sauce that doesn’t actually have any fish in it because I’m a dork about the cuisine. Anyway, it turned out to be very good, kind of like what gloppy eggplant in garlic sauce from corner delivery joints wants to be.

Da Dong * Tuanjie Hu Beikou 3, Beijing, China

Quanjude * 4/F, 786 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Shanghai, China

Western Sichuan

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).

No one ever said the face of fear would be pretty. Just being that close to the opening in the wall almost induced pants-crapping.

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

Din Tai Fung

1/2  This was our first restaurant meal in Beijing, and I realize it’s mixed up to be eating soup dumplings in a city not known for them, especially when a Shanghai visit is only a few days off. And it’s even more mixed up to eat a Shanghai specialty at a Taiwanese chain that’s branched all the way to L.A. But Din Tai Fung is highly regarded and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Plus, we were foreigners so we could do whatever we wanted. Well, at least that’s what one of James’s Chinese coworkers told him when he asked about etiquette and making restaurant reservations in particular. I love dubious information from Chinese living in America. This same coworker was also horrified at my hotel choice in Shanghai, Old House Inn, which she originally thought was James’s idea because no female would pick  a place like that (I choose all the hotels and restaurants when we travel—I guess that makes me the decider? And while I’m all for splurging on meals, I’m stingy with lodging. I don’t need luxury, coddling or spa treatments, but I hate ugly and generic too. It’s not always easy finding something boutiquey under $120 night, my rough limit for hotels in Asia). “Five star all the way” was how she described her mode of travel. “Five star all the way” and “we’re foreigners, we can do whatever we want” became the catch phrases of China vacation 2007.

Not knowing Beijing for shit, we had a heck of a time finding this place even armed with a map. We tried the subway, which isn’t so bad despite what guidebooks tell you. Not to be all proud and mighty, but if you ride the subway in NYC every day you’re fairly desensitized to supposedly off-putting things like crowds, buying tickets from machines and transferring lines.

Though, I will say that a full train by NYC standards is not so in Beijing. We crammed in one that by my reckoning was at capacity, packed enough that here a rider would just wait for the next one. But in China that does not prevent people from pushing your back with much more force than one would expect from such small frames and squeezing in another five humans. With bikes that fit through impossibly precarious spaces on the road and taxis maneuvering through traffic, missing pedestrians’ legs by inches, I couldn’t help but think of Chinese as mice burrowing everywhere unscathed. I’m hyper aware of personal space so it was mystifying.


We trudged on a busy road for a while, then meandered through some back streets, not hutongs per se, and took a shortcut through a housing project, which ended at a fenced-off canal. I could see what I thought must be Din Tai Fung (there wasn’t any signage, at least not in English) across the water and parallel street. It was much fancier than I’d anticipated; this was no hole in the wall dumpling joint. People on bikes were walking their vehicles through a little open section in the metal fence (once again squeezing through smallness—they could’ve just opened the gate, it looked like) so we popped through, too.


I’ll freely admit that I’m not a xiaolongbao connoisseur at all. I’ve never been to Joe’s Shanghai, in fact I’ve only eaten them in New York maybe twice. I still think it would be safe to say that Din Tai Fung’s version is exemplary, if only because of the insane thinness of the dumpling skins.

pork soup dumpling

And just like unnecessary subway warnings for tourists, I don’t get all the caveats that go along with eating soup dumplings. You bite a little hole, suck out the broth and eat the thing. It’s not really that messy or complicated. Oh, and you dip the delicate package in black vinegar laced with julienned ginger first. You kind of have to eat them fast, we made it through eight and then the last two in the steamer had cooled down enough to start sticking to the bottom. There’s nothing worse than a soup dumpling bursting before you can get it on your spoon.

hairy crab dumpling

We ordered a batch of pork dumplings and another of hairy crab with roe. There was something very pristine about these little buns, despite their juiciness. In a way, the pork almost seemed more appropriate being simple rather than luxurious. We ate all twenty no problem.


Orange flavored pumpkin slices were kind of unusual. I expected a softer texture, but I’m fairly certain the squash was raw. James isn’t really a picky eater at all, as far as picky eaters go, but he’s not into organ meat which was kind of unfortunate. I love cold, spicy appetizers made with tendon, tripe, jellyfish, tongue, any of that. Pumpkin slices are what you get when you’re trying to steer clear of weirdo meats.


I’d read something about red bean buns for dessert, but I didn’t see them on the menu. When I asked about them, well, I experienced my first China mishap: an outrageously large portion of red bean ice. Yikes. I’m not opposed to less than sweet Asian treats, but this was way too much for two to pick at.

Din Tai Fung also introduced us to a few quirks of Chinese dining that existed at every single restaurant we dined at bar our two most expensive meals:

1. A ticket with your order is either left on the table or put in a slot along the table and gets pulled out and scrutinized by various staff members maybe every five minutes. Nothing changes, nothing extra has been ordered, but everyone seems very concerned with double checking. Or maybe I totally misunderstood what they were doing.

2. You put your jacket over the back of your chair and someone comes along with a nylon cover that fits over the whole thing. The coat protector is way easier than a coat check.

3.  You only get one menu, and this was the case at all restaurants high end and low. I suspect it's because one diner is meant to act as host and order everything for everyone but it did take getting used to.

Din Tai Fung * 24 Xinyuanxili Zhongjie, Beijing, China

Exterior photo from Din Tai Fung. Mine has cars in it so it's less attractive, though it's notable that the professional one also looks gray and gloomy. I think Beijing just looks like that.

China: KFC & Pizza Hut

Yes, strange that I would start my China restaurant recaps with Pizza Hut. I really intended to steer clear of western food, I swear, but curiosity eventually got the better of me. Pizza Hut and KFC (both Yum! Brands) definitely seemed to be the dominant US chains in China. You might think of McDonald’s or Starbucks as the global evils, but pan pizza and fried chicken are prevailing in that corner of the world.


KFC got the better of me while killing time in the Beijing airport, which is far from a fun way to spend two afternoons (Singapore’s Changi airport is completely engaging but I’ve never needed to hang around for lengths of time). Though I later saw ads for buckets, simple fried chicken didn’t seem to be the attraction. All the combo meals were focused on sandwiches and wraps, and crunchy breaded cutlets between buns appeared to be the snack of choice. As English was non-existent on signage or spoken by staff, James pointed at a random picture and that’s the combo we split.


The bonanza entailed the popular chicken sandwich, four drummettes/wings, a creepy mayonnaisey vegetable salad that I didn’t taste out of fear and lack of cutlery and what tasted like orange Tang. I don’t really eat at KFC in the US so I can’t accurately compare the two. I don’t think extra crispy is our default, though.


I intended to get two egg tarts for dessert and somehow ended up with four. As far as miscommunications went, this was a fairly minor and tasty mishap. The little custardy pies are served warm and were way better than a fast food apple pie (yes, I’m mixing up my chain desserts).


Malls, each with a unique name and different stores, can span multiple blocks connected by overpasses and underground walkways. The only inevitable commonality are the KFCs and Pizza Huts. I only meant to peek at the Pizza Hut menu posted outside a corner location (there was also a Papa John’s nearby, but I’ve never been to one and didn’t think I should start in Shanghai). But after seeing appetizers like escargots and catching a glimpse of the slightly upscale interior, I had to try one of their seafood pizzas, no way around it.


I haven’t eaten inside a Pizza Hut in years (though I did briefly work in a drive-thru only one in college) so maybe they’ve fancified here too. Chinese Pizza Huts are more of a full service restaurant with soups, pastas and light jazz tinkling in the background.


I wasn’t bold enough to start with escargots, the New Orleans wings gave me pause; it was the cumin lamb meatballs that won me over. I just wasn’t expecting the cold marina-style dipping sauce that came on the side.


Because I’m a grotesque American (despite attracting a 98% Asian clientele, we got nasty looks through the window by some young white folks. I really don’t get the big deal. No one ever takes issue with Japanese chains like Yoshinoya or Coco Curry House that were all over the place. I wouldn’t have a problem if someone from China wanted to try mediocre Chinese food in NYC) I ordered the most expensive pizza (around $8) from their Gourmet Line. This doozy contained smoked salmon, shrimp and squid and was drizzled with creamy wasabi sauce.


Lacking any Italian-ness whatsoever in my DNA, cheese paired with seafood doesn’t bother me in the least. And sure, the dairy and spiciness dominated but the mix of flavors was strangely compelling.

KFC * Beijing Capital International Airport, Beijing, China
Pizza Hut * Metro City, 1111 Zhaojiabang Lu, Shanghai, China