By RFH. Originally published at That’s Beijing, republished with permission.
The sign has been removed but there’s still a little PRC flag fluttering produly outside (far right).
On a quiet street, just south of the tourist bottleneck beside Houhai lake’s east bridge, is an unassuming eatery, specializing in the declining appreciation of Beijing street food. Oh, and the owner’s a massive racist.
Beijing Snacks became infamous last week after the owner, a man called Wang, took an unprovoked, public swing at various nationalities embroiled in regional disputes with China. He posted a sign – “This shop does not receive the Japanese, the Philippines, the Vietnamese and dog [sic]” – displaying the same earthy creativity evident in the restaurant’s name, Beijing Snacks. And he duly provoked a massive diplomatic sandstorm.
Although Wang has since removed the sign, he remains apparently unrepentant, telling AP that, “I don’t have any regrets. I was just getting too many phone calls about it.” Yes, that will happen when you put up a provocative sign banning foreign nationals from your establishment – you’ll get phone calls.
The photos on the wall feature early examples of Chinese hipsters – wenyni qingnian – taken in the restaurant’s original Dashilar location during the Qing Dynasty.
We decided to pay a visit to the restaurant with a Japanese friend called Tomo Okada – because nothing adds to the piquancy of the meal like a racially-charged atmosphere. Soya sauce doesn’t even come close (we were going to bring a dog as well, but that just seemed plain rude and apparently can cause real trouble).
The restaurant serves, as mentioned, northern capital delicacies. These usually have a strong smell and taste, and can be found by following the trail of pungent whiffs: one notorious local dish is simply called ‘stinky tofu.’ Our arts editor, James, describes the style as “hearty and heavy. It’s difficult to grow things up here, so there really isn’t much of a varied diet.” Young Beijinger Jinqing says it is “mostly based on Shandong cuisine and quite salty… As the former capital of Qing Dynasty China, it also combines features of Mongolian food (grilled beef and lamb [i.e. chuanr]) and Manchurian confections.”
Here’s the full range of tasty specialties consumed.
Moreover, Beijing food usually involves a lot of stuff that looks and sounds pretty repellent to foreigners. Take the specialty dish served at Beijing Snacks: lu zhu huo shao. That’s a meat broth with wheaten-cake biscuits, pork intestines, pork lungs and pork liver and cooked in pig’s blood. If you put that in front of an al-Qaeda suspect, there’d be no more need for waterboarding ever again (Here’s a local description of it that makes it seem incredibly innocuous). This is partly what annoys me so much about the sign: there’s almost no way a Japanese person (or a Filipino; can’t speak for the Vietnamese) would be the slightest bit interested in paying a visit to this establishment anyway. The whole thing is just a race-baiting marketing campaign. It is not only ill mannered and crude, giving a wrongful impression of the city, it’s cynical. The guy did it purely to get attention for his crappy restaurant.
Absoltuely no chance of runing out of baijiu – that’s a full week’s supply.
Which is a little place, really, only eight tables and an apparent shrine to baijiu at the back. James immediately ordered the lu zhu huo shao and it arrived as soon as we sat down, almost; they have a cauldron of the stuff constantly on the bubble.
Usually for 20 kuai, you’d get way more innards and wheat cakes than you’re signing-up for here. The portions are not only small and the “gravy-soaked biscuits” thin but the flavor is more salty than meaty. Also, it was visually unappealing. I know that a bowl of pig lung and tripe literally sounds like a dog’s breakfast but (a) it can look good and (b) dogs are banned from this place. There was nothing about this lu zhao huo shao that said they cared about this dish or that it was their signature effort: it looked like a bowl of “intestine afterthoughts,” in James’s words.
The highlight of the meal – a ma doufu.
Still, the laoban had grunted at us that we – meaning, presumably, foreigners – wouldn’t be able to finish any of his dishes (something he seemed oddly proud of)… so there was no way we were not going to face down this implicit challenge. Thus, we attacked the gut soup heartily – it was certainly edible, if not remarkable – and raised the stakes by ordering their ma doufu, or “freckly” fried mung-bean milk (which hardcore Beijingers drink for breakfast. That wasn’t a metaphor: they actually do, though not the fried stuff). This dish, which is made by sizzling fermented milk until the liquid evaporates, was perhaps the most surprising. Traditionally a very oily animal, cheap and popular in Beijing, this version was fluffy and light, with just the right amount of sour bite and chili oil. Considering it looks like someone’s just emptied a sack of cement on the plate, it’s really hard to find such a pleasant-tasting example of something that resembles building material. There’s a joke here to be made about Beijing’s twin obsessions with construction and ma doufu, but I cannot for the life of me find it.
The final dish we ordered was a classic noodle: zha jiangmian. Again, it wasn’t as oily as is usual or as tradition prefers, but it was quite plain – a few shredded carrots, cucumber and a dollop of the reduced meat sauce over what appeared to be store-bought noodles failed to remind we were supposedly in the heart of ancient Beijing. Especially for the price, RMB18. Actually, one of the only things going for this place is that it has reasonable prices in what’s usually a hard place to find these kinds of snack. Especially the donkey burgers, which were the standard RMB6-8 (you pay the premium for the lean meat) price-point you see throughout Beijing. The whole bill, including a couple of drinks, came to just over RMB70. An unfailingly polite Tomo (who has been kicked out of numerous taxis this past year, among other unpleasantness) said he enjoyed the food, atmosphere and pictures. “These kinds of local Beijing restaurants are few and between,” he said, “so I was really impressed.”
But overall, the food would fall flat to any experienced Beijing snacker. It turns out that notorious ex-sign was one of the main things going for the place. On that subject, we tried to lure Boss Wang to our table to discuss the matter a number of times, but he was churlishly holed up in the corner, answering our comments with non-committal, monotone grunts. I think he was onto us from the beginning, really. Eventually, while paying the bill, we mentioned how much Tomo, our sushi-guzzling Japanese friend, had enjoyed the food. The frown faded from his face, swiftly replaced by a scowl. All eye contact vanished. I’ve never before seen anyone go so rapidly from grumpy to grumpier. Admittedly, the remark was a touch provocative. But all we’d said was that he’d enjoyed the meal: we didn’t tell him they “serve a much better lu zhu huo shao on the Senkakus” or anything. Still, I guess if you are a serious racist, learning that you just served a grinning devil your own House Special has to hurt in a Special way.
Here’s Boss Wang, smoking furiously as he (presumably) considers the twin outrages of Japanese administration of the Diaoyu Islands and the crackers in his resto. Actually, he gave us the bare minimum of politeness.
As we said our goodbyes outside, some of the staff gathered at the window to stare at us. This is a non-traditional Beijing goodbye – it says approximately something like “Don’t ever come back here again, you running dogs.” One of them glared balefully through the spot where the sign had once proudly hung on the glass. I gave him my warmest smile and pedaled off.