J. Kenji López-Alt blah

Beijing: The Best Way to Order Food in China

Location: Beijing, China

After a long day of hiking on the Great Wall, Adri and I weren't in the mood to do anything fancy for dinner, so we took a walk down the street and employed the basic rule that has yet to fail to lead us to something delicious: if you see an alley with smoke or steam coming out of it, investigate. Our investigations led us to a smallish restaurant filled with mostly men, loudly cheering each other with glasses of the cheap Yanjing beer they serve everywhere for about 5 RMB for a half liter bottle (that's about 80¢), picking at plates of dumplings and noodles, along with miniature woks emitting clouds of delicious steam. They were set on top of tabletop racks filled with hot coals.

Want to know the secret to eating well and cheap in China without having to speak a lick of Chinese?

Walk into any loud, raucous restaurant, look for the table that looks like its having the most fun (in this case it was easy, as one table yelled a toast at us as soon as we walked into the joint), point at what they're eating, and point at your belly.


That's how we ended up with two giant beers and a bowl of perfectly respectable zha jiang mian on our table.


It wasn't quite as fancy or tasty as the version we had at the Peking duck restaurant a couple nights before, and it was a little skimpy on its selection of toppings (just cucumber, watermelon radish, and a meat-free bean paste), but the noodles were fresh-made, and we weren't complaining.


Looks good, right?


Next up was something I would have never thought to order (nor would I have recognized it on a Chinese-only menu), but it was fan-freaking-tastic. Chunks of bone-in deep-fried chicken cooked with dried chilies and fermented bean paste, along with fresh green hot capsicum and crunchy celery. It vaguely resembled the Sichuan dish of la zi ji (spicy deep fried chicken), and perhaps was the restaurant's interpretation of the dish.

We picked through the bits of chicken, sucking off bits of crisp skin and tender spiced meat and discovered that the bottom of the wok was filled with thinly sliced onions—oniosn that had been slowly caramelizing over the coal fire the wok was set on, all while absorbing the juices from the meat and vegetables above. Delicious.


Last up was these finger-shaped dumplings, which in many ways resembled the huo shao we'd eaten a few days before, except these had sealed ends. All the better for trapping in delicious juices. These were the first dumplings we had in China that came with no sauce for dipping, which was quite alright, as their pork and leek fillings were heavily-seasoned with vinegar and soy, and juicier than you could hope for inside.

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