Thursday, June 25, 2009

流水席 - Liu Shui Xi Snacks

This is a bare bones little place that serves decent xiaochi (snacks) if you happen to find yourself in the Shuangnan area. It's about a block southeast of the big Ren Ren Le complex. Their chao shou is a solid choice. Red oil chao shou (红油抄手):

Tian shui mian (甜水面) are thick, chewy wheat noodles in a spicy and sweet sauce. This bowl tipped the balance way to the spicy side. The noodles were too stiff though:

I forgot it was summer, and ordered a bowl of tang yuan 汤元 (sweet sesame stuffed rice ball soup). It was very, very good, though not really something you feel like eating in hot weather.

Each small bowl will set you back about Y3

Address: 流水席 武侯区双楠街145号

何吉发手撕面 - He Ji Fa Handmade Noodles

This very popular noodle shop is in the complex north of the main campus of SWUFE university, known locally as 财大。 (The noodle shop is right across from High Connections Coffee.) Foreign students from the university come here a lot. It is one of the few lower end places that I know of with an English menu.

The noodle dishes are the main draw. The noodles come in long, chewy, raggedy strips, more tender than dao shao (knife cut) noodles. The whole rib noodles are excellent, but I wanted to try something else my last visit. I asked for a small bowl of pickled pepper chicken wing noodles and some bean sprouts:

They were quick to replace the bean sprouts with some cucumbers when I pointed out a pebble in the dish.

Pickled pepper chicken wing noodles:

As you can see the chicken wings here are actually the wing tips, which often get discarded in the West but which are the most loved part of the bird here. I was very impressed to get four of them in my soup, but couldn't find any peppers. I have my suspicions they just didn't want to waste the searingly hot pickled peppers (泡椒) on the foreigner. Even without the peppers the soup was quite spicy and had crunchy bits of raw garlic.

Address: 何吉发手撕面 青羊区双清南路6号财经商业广场B座18号

Lunch at Tian Yuan

Back at Tian Yuan, for lunch. I usually stay away from the fake meat items at Chinese vegetarian restaurants, but let the server suggest me a couple this time. If I had been able to read the real name of the cold dish (Crystal Jelly made from Zhenjiang River water) I might have had higher expectations. I took it as a kind of fake meat headcheese, though it was chewy and didn't melt in your mouth like the real thing. Tasted pretty good though, and the spicy sauce was great.

腰果吉丁, Cashew and diced 'chicken'. Note the clever play on words around the third character 吉, with the same pronunciation as 'chicken', but meaning 'lucky'. Sweet, spicy, chewy, nice crunch from the celery and cashews.

Server was very sweet and took care of everything. I lingered a bit afterwards on the deck with a novel and they kept my millet sprout tea topped up. Another server brought out a sample of a new menu item to try.

正宗 东北 饺子 - Genuine Northeast Jiaozi

Edit: This place is now a different restaurant.

A few months ago, a stand of floral arrangements on Xiaojiahe street heralded a newly opened jiaozi joint. It's a narrow little place, with two rows of benches along the sides of the room. The efficient servers might greet you with, "Shenme xianr?" - "What filling?". If they have made white fungus soup (银耳汤), they will let you know (and you should get some).

My first order there was a liang of egg jiaozi (鸡蛋) and one liang of suancai (pickled cabbage mixed with meat) jiaozi (酸菜). The egg jiaozi, usually my favourite kind, was meh. The suancai jiaozi was tender, fragrant, and had a great balance of tart suancai and rich ground pork. I found myself coming back to the shop, intending to try different things but getting stuck on the suancai jiaozi. The shiitake mushroom and pork jiaozi (香菇) are also very good. Jiaozi fixings:

They also have a short menu of Dongbei (Northeast) favourites, such as battered pork slices in sweet and sour sauce (锅暴肉). Their version of this dish is too heavily battered for me, but those who love Westernized Chinese food would probably enjoy it. There is also an oily but melt-in-your-mouth version of 'triple earthy freshness' (地三鲜); a stir fry of potatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

Address: Xiaojiahe street. Close to Grandma Jin's The place is a little expensive but you can still get out of there for Y10 per person. If you order the Dongbei dishes it's Y15-20 per person.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tea Market at Wukuaishi

I had pictured the wholesale tea market as one of these enormous multistory buildings crowded with stalls or a maze of streets crowded with little tea shops. The reality was much smaller and quieter; a few shops along a couple of streets near Wukuaishi. You can buy loose or packaged tea as well as various other plants meant for steeping and tea paraphernalia. If you are looking for local product, there are shops selling Sichuanese tea from Mengdingshan, as well as quite a few selling Yunnan Pu'er. Gate with teacup on top:

The shops have lots of prepackaged tea on display but unless you know the teas very well don't pass up the chance to taste. Most shops had big freezers full of tea leaves, some fresh. Any shop will infuse something for you to sample.

I was on the lookout for a good summer drinking tea and asked for 20 rmb worth of chrysanthemum (菊花) tea. 20 rmb bought a bag of chrysanthemum flowers the size of a travel pillow, which was much more than I expected.

Tea here is much cheaper than elsewhere, but like most wholesale markets it takes some patience and effort to find the really good products and good deals. It's best for visitors who know a little Chinese and can bargain, and have the time to taste and comparison shop.

There is a very cool shop named Tea Joy (天月茶市场) that sells all kinds of tea service products. They have tea sets made from Yixing clay in Jiangsu as well as ceramic sets. The shop attendants here were very sweet and patiently explained the products, though nobody spoke English. They also invited me to drink tea, but I had already sampled too much at the other shops. You could get a nice ceramic tea set for about Y200 (or an elaborate one for Y500). The clay sets had a wider range of prices, but were on average a little less expensive. If I was going to buy gifts to bring home I would definitely come back here.


西南茶市场、 五块石. NW of main train station, in wholesale market neverland. (Food, cigarettes, toys, etc.) The 59 bus comes right here if you are coming from the southwest; get off at Wukuaishi stop when you see the tea market gate. Almost end of bus line.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Falafel at the Sultan

"I honestly don't get this food."

"The table was full of really strange things; the flavour was weird as well."

"There was only one thing I could bring myself to eat"

"I've tried to like it many times, I still can't get used to it."

These comments come from online reviews of The Sultan, a middle eastern restaurant near Yulin. Reading locals' reviews of Western restaurants really brings home that Western food is just as strange to Chinese people as Chinese food can be to us non-Chinese. (It also makes me realize how my scribblings about Chinese food must look to a native Chinese person.) But in the end, who can say whose reaction to which food is authentic?

Philosophy aside, here is the falafel plate at the Sultan. Fresh baked (very good) bread, crunchy and spicy falafel, nice bright vegetables, house made yogurt, and a strange sauce that tasted like spicy ketchup. They could have used better tomatoes, but everything else is quite good. I like it a lot. (And I wish you could order their wine by the glass.)

林南街1号都市金岸附14号(近倪家桥) The Sultan, just off Nijiaqiao Rd, pretty close to Bookworm

Friday, June 12, 2009

顺兴老茶馆 - Shun Xing Traditional Teahouse

Earlier this week I planned a lazy morning of visiting the Yong Ling Tomb museum and then whiling away an hour or so in a nearby teahouse. Shun Xing Teahouse happened to be not quite as nearby as it looked on the map though, and once I found the right street I walked past the building a couple of times before asking a parking attendant if he'd heard of it. He pointed me to an elevator in a huge shopping complex, the last place you would expect to find a teahouse. This door is right opposite a clothing department:

By the time I got there I was pretty hungry so got seated in the dining area. Though there is not much natural light, the bamboo tree in the middle of the room and the wooden tables and chairs do a good job of evoking a Chengdu teahouse.

What added even more to the teahouse atmosphere was the ear cleaner. These guys use long metal implements to clean out clients' ears, and stroll through tea houses rattling their tools together for advertising. (After you have been in Chengdu a while, you recognize the rattle of the ear cleaner and the ding-ding of the candy seller.) However, with just a few tables of customers this guy was more aggressive than most and tried to persuade me to engage his services as I looked at the menu. "Come on, it feels great! (挺舒服!)".

The menu at Shun Xing is much more restaurant than teahouse. They have many traditional dishes as well as a few with very high end ingredients, including the famous Ya'an cold water fish. I was more interested in the snacks (小吃). The snack set menus looked like way too much food, so I just ordered three snacks and a plate of kong xin cai.

A bowl of seasoned cold bean starch noodles (凉粉), fried sticky rice balls in sesame (糖油果子), and tea:

I ordered chao shou as well, and got two small dumplings that tasted a lot more like wontons than chao shou. The snacks were all quite standard, but about five times as expensive as comparable versions in the snack restaurants. If I'd known the portions were so tiny I would have ordered a few more. The kong xin cai tasted ok but I would expect a plate of greens costing Y20 to be a little more carefully prepared. The leaves were too limp and the stems had brownish spots.

The rice I asked for never came. The servers here are uniformed and professional, but the type that are very focused on doing their assigned tasks rather than paying attention to the customers. I wanted to order more snacks, but after seeing the ladies at the next table have trouble flagging down a server to pay their bill I decided not to bother.

The interior and decor is very elaborate, with 3D murals in the walls and many displays of traditional Sichuanese crafts and artifacts. The place is really worth visiting for the interior alone, and in the evenings they have Sichuan opera performances as well. Geese by the pond:

顺兴老茶馆 沙湾路258号成都国际会展中心3楼

Sunday, June 7, 2009

滇味餐厅 - Dian Wei Canteen

Xiyulong Street, north of Tianfu Square, is known for its many bike shops. If you have worked up an appetite test driving the two wheelers, there are two interesting restaurants right beside each other in the middle of the street: a branch of the famous Chen Mapo Tofu, and Dian Wei Canteen. Dian Wei means 'Yunnan Flavour', but the menu has mostly Sichuanese classics with a couple of Yunnan specialties. The restaurant is   best known for their Crossing the Bridge Noodles (过桥米线).

Here is the specialty of the house. The stir-ins are black fungus, tofu skin, raw and cooked chicken, cooked pork, sliced fish, zha cai (a kind of preserved vegetable), Chinese spam, and a thinly sliced piece of offal with a livery taste that the server called 'yao'. This is a bare bones version of the noodles for Y10. You could also order versions with much more add-ins for much steeper prices. Their broth has a great colour and flavour with the proper slick of fat on top. I wished there were more vegetables though. Another Yunnan specialty they serve here is clay pot steamed chicken (汽锅鸡). I wasn't impressed with it; chicken pieces that bony should give up way more flavour to the soup than what they had and there was little of the dried goji and Chinese medicinal plants that usually come with the chicken.

Once when I asked for a recommendation, the server suggested this: krab and egg yolk soft tofu (蟹黄豆花). The egg yolk was oddly grainy, and the sauce had corn, soybeans, and cubes of Chinese spam. The dish was such a novelty to me that I ate most of it just figuring out what I thought, but was not anything to re order. Later that week at a friend's house, I happened to be served another tofu with egg yolk dish which had a sauce smooth as silk.

Pumpkin cakes (南瓜饼):

When you first walk in, you see one of the toughest ordering setups for the Chinese challenged - a pictureless menu  board behind the cashier's head. However, they do keep a couple of picture menus behind the till.

Address: 滇味餐厅 青羊区西玉龙街195号

Friday, June 5, 2009

皇城坝小吃店 - Huang Cheng Ba Snack Place

Wuhou temple and Jinli Street are tourist central in Chengdu, which means a lot of snacks (小吃) are consumed in the area. Huang Cheng Ba is a block or two west of Wuhou Temple.

I'm much more used to eating this kind of food on rickety tables while sitting on a plastic stool. The heavy carved wood tables and benches suit the area and the menu perfectly, and the warm yellow dishes and crocks look beautiful on the tables.

The pot stickers (锅贴) are a specialty here. Mine had a reheated quality, unfortunately. I will order them again only if the place is busy. In the back is a dish of garlic tossed cucumbers (凉拌黄瓜).

The white fungus soup (银耳汤) is gorgeous; a little cool, a little sweet, with dates and goji berries like red jewels. Would come back for this alone. Did, actually.

Steamed dumplings (蒸饺子). Far too many places in Chengdu serve steamed dumplings that have sat too long in the basket and been allowed to harden. These were way beyond that, actually cracking on top. Highly disappointing.

Cool Skinny Three Ways (凉拌三丝). The three things were bean threads, lettuce heart, and seaweed all tossed together in a spicy, crunchy, vinegary pile. Once I watched a monk eat this with rice. He emptied a couple of packages of dried flavoured tofu snacks on top, for protein I would guess.

This being a tourist area, prices are on the high side. The servers are well trained and can help with the menu, though I haven't met any who speak English and some have strong accents. There are a few pictures of menu items along the top wall and outside, but it's otherwise all Chinese. They have some noodle dishes that I am eager to try, but it's been too hot to even think about eating noodles lately. Will keep everyone posted. Storefront:

Address: 皇城坝小吃店 武侯区武侯大街259号; about five min walk west on Wuhou Da Dao from Wuhou Temple.

Eat Fish

On the first floor of this office building is a fish restaurant.

Children who eat fish are smart
Women who eat fish are beautiful
Men who eat fish are vigorous
A country that eats fish is strong and prosperous