Beijing

 

One of the pleasures of dining in China’s capital is sampling the cuisine called “old Beijing flavor,” which includes the traditional local favorites people remember from the days of their parents, grandparents, and beyond. One of my favorite places for “old Beijing flavor”, Dao Jia Chang, also comes with an utterly authentic environment, complete with screeching parrots and, in summer, old men with their undershirts pushed up over bare bellies to their armpits. They have one of the city’s best versions of jing jiang rou si, piping hot, piquant shredded pork

jing jiang rou si & yang you ma doufu

jing jiang rou si & yang you ma doufu

and crispy-cold spring onions rolled up in tofu-skin wrappers, and the shao bing jia rou mo aren’t bad either, small sesame cakes which you split open and stuff with seasoned minced pork. I love the yang you ma doufu, which is fermented mung bean paste drizzled with lamb oil and heaped with chopped scallions and dried red chile peppers. Ooh la la. If you have the cojones for fermented food (those who dislike strong cheese need not apply), this will drive you around the bend. There is something about the match between fermented mung bean paste and rendered mutton fat that is improbably—well—fabulous. Pay no attention to all the guidebooks erroneously describing this dish as “spicy tofu”—it is neither spicy nor, despite its Chinese moniker, is it tofu. Beijing home cooks have told me that the secret to this beloved local dish is getting the fermentation of the mashed mung beans just right. Too little, and it falls flat; too much, and it tastes like a locker room… but nail it, and it’s unforgettable. Dao Jia Chang, #20 Guangxi Men Beili, in the Xibahe area, near the Chongqing Hotel. Tel. 6422-1078.  English menu. Dao Jia Chang is on a small side street and sometimes taxi drivers don’t know how to locate the address. Either have your hotel desk call the restaurant before you set out and write down explicit instructions in Chinese, or ask your taxi driver to call the restaurant when nearby, for final instructions.

 

Xiao Wang’s Home Restaurant interprets traditional Beijing food in an upscale, hip, expensive, and gorgeously placed restaurant in serene Ritan Park. Often the food itself does not really soar, but the extensive menu (with photographs and, of course, English) is complemented by a full bar and a sophisticated ambience, making this the place to come when someone slightly stuffy, like your boss or your in-laws, wants to try “old Beijing flavor”.  Xiao Wang’s Home Restaurant, Ritan Park, Chaoyang District, 8651-7859. English menu, with photos. Also #2 Guanghua Dongli, 6594-3602.

 

 

Zuo Lin You SheReady for the street level? Sometimes the best “old Beijing flavor” is found in the smallest hole-in-the-wall joints. My new favorite is Zuo Lin You She, on Meishuguan Houjie below its intersection with Di’anmen Dongdajie/Zhangzizhong Lu. This restaurant’s specialty is da lian huo shao, big cigar-shaped, dumpling-esque, pan-fried pockets stuffed with all manner of meats and veggies (as seen on left)—in fact, the whole first page of the menu is devoted to choices of fillings. Tofu with mustard greens, lamb with onions, beef with coriander, and pork with chives were all excellent, though they barely scratched the surface of the available possibilities. Amazingly, the sides and veggies were also impressive—especially ‘hot pickled mustard tuber’ (lao hu cai), a shredded cold salad far more delicious than it sounds. Chinese cabbage in a hawthorn fruit dressing was another fine cold plate, alongside peanuts in vinegar (roasted peanuts in dark vinegar, soy and cilantro). As for deep fried eggplant slices in pepper salt (in these parts, that means salt with Sichuan peppercorn, actually the mouth-tingling dried berry of the Chinese prickly ash), we found it to be too oily, but addictive. However the local classic “mustard cabbage pier,” a cold heart of Napa cabbage marinated in a sinus-busting horseradish sauce, was too strong to be enjoyable. Skip the sweet-and-sour cabbage, too. Who needs a sugar-based dressing when there is a more interesting hawthorn-fruit version on the menu? Zuo Lin You She, 50 Meishuguan Houjie, 11 AM-9:30 PM. English menu.  

 

Yaoji Chaoguan is even more of a dive, the kind of tiny place where you order at the counter Yaoji Chaoguanbefore sitting down. Located immediately east of the Drum Tower on Gulou Dongdajie, this raucous space always seems to be crowded with Beijingers laughing, talking, and shouting as they chow down. The big, fluffy meat baozi are a steal at 1 yuan apiece (about 18 cents), and though very bready, they are stuffed with hot, well-seasoned pork. A bowl of reasonably respectable ma doufu (fermented mung bean paste), is also a great deal at 10 yuan ($1.60), even if it lacks the magic touch of rendered mutton fat. Cold dishes can be selected from the case as you order; don’t miss the rosy slices of marinated watermelon radish, shredded dry tofu mixed with toon sprouts, and the plate of fungus, mushroom, gluten, and 5-spice peanuts. At lunch and dinner, a lot of people are eating zha guanchang, which is basically nothing but fried dough triangles topped with enough chopped raw garlic to make a powerful impression on the next six people you meet. At breakfast, millet porridge and soymilk are popular. Yaoji Chaoguan, 311 Guloudong Dajie,6 A.M.-10:30 P.M. No English.

 

 

Liu Zhou Shifu

Liu Zhai Shifu

Liu Zhai Shifu. If you are going to have ‘old Beijing flavor’, why not enjoy it in a perfectly traditional setting–a hutong courtyard house? Liu Zhai Shifu, just steps away from busy Meishuguan Dajie in a tiny hutong, serves terrific local specialties, at good prices, in just such a space. Closed down by the Liu family during the Cultural Revolution, it was re-opened in 1998… the kind of history-rich restaurant foreigners love as much as locals. Perhaps it’s a tad hard to find the first time, but worth the effort.  Not far from the National Art Museum, the hutong-mouth is exactly opposite the Bank of Beijing and the San Lian Bookstore, close to the street address 11-2 Meishuguan Dajie (that’s a sub-address of #11, not #112.) Walk into the hutong and follow the red lanterns to the restaurant. Inside, old-fashioned wooden tables and chairs crowd a raucous, friendly space, and a large laminated menu with photos and English translations makes navigating a breeze. Traditional delicacies, not often seen, abound. For example, my beloved Chinese toon leaves are served both as a cold dish (toon sprouts tossed with smoked dry tofu) and a hot dish (deep fried toon leaves in tempura style, less interesting as the unique toon flavor is overwhelmed). Chrysanthemum-leaf salad, sea whelks, and fried rabbit with peanuts and chiles all make appearances. They serve many classic ‘old Beijing’ cold veggie dishes too, like cabbage in hot mustard dressing, and mashed eggplant with sesame sauce. There’s an unusual range of northern Chinese drinks: a plum syrup drink, matcha mung bean soup, country style corn juice, and jujube-with-medlar (a crab-apple-type relative of the rose). The restaurant is locally noted for its excellent and well-priced Beijing Duck, a good value at RMB 138-178, but my favorite dish was another one of their top signature creations: “roasted mutton with Beijing flavor.” It’s a sizzling plate of lean, cumin-scented, thin-sliced mutton, stir-fried under heaps of sauteed cilantro and green onion. What a great idea, to saute cilantro along with onion for a strong-flavored meat dish…I’m going to do it the minute I get home. Liu Zhai Shifu, in a hutong just off 11-2 Meishuguan Dajie, 6400-5912. 9 AM-2 PM, 4 PM-10:30 PM. I have been able to just walk in at lunch, but it is packed most evenings, so for dinner, better reserve ahead.

 

 

Many people feel a visit to Beijing is not complete without a Peking duck meal. I have two favorites to offer, depending on your mood. If you are in the mood for a small place, a frankly funky courtyard house that typifies how most people lived in the 1970s when I first came to China and is somehow, remarkably, still intact, head straight for Li Qun. The duck is excellent, and the pancakes are as thin and delicate as silk. By all means order the crispy fried duck intestines, served with sliced raw chiles; our table practically fought over them. The chef worked for many years at the nearby Quanjude, a venerable roast duck restaurant, and finally decided to open his own place in his home. This is a time capsule experience. Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant, No. 11 Beixiangfeng Hutong, Zhengyi Rd., Qianmendong St. 6705-5578.

 

Of course there are times when you want a fancy Peking Duck dinner, one where an extensive and interesting menu complements the roast duck experience. That is the time to go to Da Dong, where, when it comes to their specialty dish, they have also developed a much-vaunted method of reducing the layer of duck fat between the skin and the breast. And they serve the full complement of traditional Peking duck condiments, not just slivered spring onion and plum sauce, but also julienned watermelon radish, pureed garlic, and coarse sugar. One of the best dishes we had was braised winter bamboo shoots with herbs, served in bamboo cups. Da Dong, Tuanjie Hu Beikou No. 3, 6582-2892, among other locations.

 

Are you a fire-eater? Assuming you are not planning to visit Sichuan or Hunan, Beijing is an excellent place to try their spicy specialties. All hot food is not created equal, however. Sichuan cuisine is based on the ma-la (lit. numbing and hot) flavor profile, which combines conventionally hot red peppers with tingly Sichuan peppercorns, while Hunan cuisine leads with hot-and-smoky flavors, owing to their long tradition of preserving foods by smoking them, then cooking with hot chiles. For an ‘official’ take on Sichuan cuisine, try Chuan Ban (the Sichuan Government Restaurant), located on the first floor of the government building housing Sichuan’s bureaucrats in the capital. Trust the provincial officials to have good Sichuan in their office building! This restaurant is a dinosaur; it’s a state-owned enterprise in an era when most of the state-owned restaurants have closed or privatized. As a result, Chuan Ban only opens at traditional mealtimes, 10:00-2:00 for lunch and 4:00-10:00 for dinner; worse, its many marvelous dishes are offered on a huge menu without much organization or explanation, despite the English translations and the pictures. Most Westerners are completely unfamiliar with the broad, complex range of Sichuan cuisine, so it can be very difficult to know what to order here – especially when every table in the huge place is packed, and an impatient waiter is glowering over you. And this is not Sichuan for sissies, either; the bar for heat is set high – two stars is hot, and I say that as someone whose first phrase in Chinese, after hello and goodbye, was ‘the hotter the better, please.’ Yet many dishes which balance the menu pack no heat at all, like braised fresh broad beans in a whisper-light dressing, flavored with the chopped leaves of the Chinese toon tree – a deeply unusual fresh herb with a musky, spiky, herbaceous taste that transforms the mild blandness of the beans. This is unhelpfully presented on the menu as ‘broad bean with vicia faba’. A truly wonderful dish is ‘steamed lamb with rice flour’, tender, flavorful chunks of lamb basket-steamed in a bed of soft, coarsely crumbled glutinous rice with chopped garlic, topped with a mince of fresh cilantro and dried red chiles. Back home, I thought of this dish so often I even tried, without much success, to make it. Chuan Ban, Jianguomen Gongyuantoutiao #5, 6512-2277.

 

If your only exposure to Sichuan food has been the very narrow slice of it normally served in the West, you may want to experience an upscale, prix-fixe meal designed to give you a broad and well-balanced acquaintance with the food of the region. The Source, gorgeously located in a restored hutong house built around a central courtyard and graciously furnished in period style, offers elaborate, set Sichuan dinners at 288, 388 or 488 yuan per person (about $46, $65, and $81); higher price levels denote more expensive ingredients such as specialty seafoods. A fascinating sequence of cold dishes, hot dishes, various dainties, and a dessert kept our table happy through a long leisurely meal, with a lot of small plates to allow diners to try different things. If you have trouble with too much spice, they will tone it down. Serious wine list. The Source, No. 14 Banchang Hutong, near Nanluoguxiang subway stop. 6400-3736. Next to Lu Song Yuan Guesthouse. 11-2 P.M., 5-10 P.M.

Spillover seatingThe sticker shock of paying for a meal at The Source will be more than balanced out by a Sichuan dining adventure at Zhang Mama, a jam-packed, ridiculously inexpensive, delicious little alley joint near the intersection of Gulou Dongdajie and Andingmennei Dajie. The dining room is too tiny to squeeze in more than a few tables, so spillover seating runs improbably down the adjoining alley. If you get there and the place is full, check the side alley with its rickety tables before you give up. Zhang Mama specializes in ma la xiang guo (more on that below), for which diners load up bamboo baskets with their preferred meat, veggies, and other ingredients from the refrigerated case as part of ordering. Zhang MamaBut the restaurant has other great choices as well. Spicy bean jelly (ma la liang fen) captures the high, clear, searingly hot ma-la flavor with little interference, thanks to the cool, sturdy, but almost flavorless bean jelly. The classic Sichuan snack dish dan dan mian is dry (i.e. not in soup) noodles in chile oil sauce topped with peanuts, scallions, and ground pork. The chile oil settles at the bottom, so assuming you can take the heat, mix it up before beginning. Don’t wait too long, or the noodles will clump—they are rustic, fresh, and chewy, a cut above the packaged noodles most of the world’s restaurants use for this dish. Perhaps the most familiar dish here will be gong bao ji ding gai fan, delectably spicy ma-la boneless chicken cubes with peanuts, whole poached garlic cloves, and charred red peppers over a bed of rice—mild compared to the other dishes, with tender chicken that is refreshingly free of bone or gristle. When you’re done, you might wish Zhang Mama was your mama. Zhang Mama Tese Chuanweiguan, #4 Fensiting Hutong, just off Andingmennei Dajie. 10 A.M. to 11 P.M. Although the hutong confusingly changes names several times, Zhang Mama is located on the same hutong (at the Andingmennei end) as Café Sambal (at the Jiugulou end).

 

While on the subject of Sichuan food, one of Beijing’s hot food trends is ma la xiang guo, a big, bright, super-spicy one-dish meal that is a brow-mopping variant of the hot pot experience. Hot pot is broth-based, cooked at the table by the diners who have ordered the prepped ingredients from a long menu of possibilities. Ma la xiang guo also begins with the diner ordering from a long list of potential ingredients, but in this case everything is stir-fried in hot oil loaded with chiles, spices, herbs, leaves and pods of all kinds. This is guaranteed to bring on a flush or a sweat. Ma la xiang guo can be found all over town, but try Zhang Mama (above), in the area near the Drum and Bell Towers, or try Lao Che Ji, 5th floor, Wudaokou U-Centre, 36 Chengfu Lu (6266-6180), 10 A.M.-10 P.M., near Qinghua University and Beijing Language and Culture University.

Diners get down at Qin Tang Fu

Diners get down at Qin Tang Fu

Qin Tang Fu and Paomo Guan. When it’s time to go from spicy to mild, here are two perfectly delightful sister restaurants, right next to each other, serving the hearty and delicious food of Shaanxi Province, home to the city of Xi’an. Shaanxi food is widely known for its noodles (as well as its delicious local vinegar), and so you will see noodles on almost every table (along with that crucial little ceramic vinegar jug). Big fluffy wheat noodles in winter, cooling flat rice noodles in summer… however, as one of the few people on earth who is not particularly jazzed by pasta, I am well qualified to tell you that there are many other delicious things on the menu here as well.

Shaanxi pork burger

Shaanxi pork burger

 

Start with the house specialty, the delicious “pork burger”–rou jia mo–anise-scented pulled pork in a flat bun–a deal at RMB 9, or USD $1.44 at today’s exchange rate. (This is much like the version made popular in New York City by Xi’an Famous Foods.) “Mustard dressed cabbage with peanut and bean” was actually chopped mustard greens, lightly flavored, with fresh boiled yellow soybeans–light, refreshing, and healthy. They have unusual Shaanxi specialties such as donkey meat, but I couldn’t quite go there… my favorite dish was called “fresh fungus”–a wonderful hot stir-fry of wild mushrooms, tree ear, thin-sliced lean pork, and sweet peppers. All the stools are child-sized, and low to the ground, but why worry about eating with your knees up by your elbows when the food is this good? Paomo Guan, 53 Chaoyangmennei Nanxiaojie, 6525-4639. Qin Tang Fu, 69 Chaoyangmennei Nanxiaojie, 6559-8135. Both open 11-2:30, 5-10 PM. 

 

On bottom, mock fried cod & lamb kabobs

On bottom, mock fried cod & lamb kabobs

After all these provincial specialties you may long for something light and vegetarian. This is the moment to go to Baihe, delightful and highly civilized vegetarian restaurant housed in a restored hutong house which will carry you back to a vanished and more spiritual era. The walls are agreeably lined with books, and gossamer, earth-toned silk panels separate dining nooks and rooms. There is a whole separate tea menu, inviting you to simply contemplate the artistry of tea, but to miss the food would be a mistake. Following a long tradition of temple cuisine in which vegetarian dishes masquerade as meats and poultry and fish, Baihe turns out an amazing version of ‘roasted vegetarian mutton shashlik’, skewered mushroom chunks prepared in seasonings that taste remarkably like lamb. Their pan-fried ‘vegetarian codfish’ is equally impressive, both in its flaky, fish-like texture and its cod flavor. Straight-ahead vegetable dishes like long eggplant with peppers, and griddled assorted mushrooms, both spicy, were excellent. Taking the artifice behind traditional temple cuisine a little further, Baihe even uses vegetables to impersonate other vegetables, as in the deep-fried ‘carrot’ made of sweet rice flour and mushrooms. Baihe Vegetarian, 23 Caoyuan hutong (off busy Dongzhimen), 11:30-3:00, 5:00-9:30. Tea menu 2:00-5:00. 6248-9089. English menu for food.

 

I have heard food scholars say the principal influence on ‘Beijing flavor’ is the light, clear cuisine of Shandong, exemplified by one of its most famous dishes, wonton soup. Yet the Manchus who beifjigruled China throughout the Qing Dynasty left their culinary mark on the capital too, even if their food tends to be underestimated—too often dismissed, in its pre-imperial form, as a simple hunters’ cuisine of roasted meats. Manchu food is far more sophisticated and subtle than that, as you can experience for yourself at the popular Najia Xiaoguan, where some of the most interesting dishes actually feature vegetables. I am a great fan of toon leaves (a vegetable I have never seen in the West); their earthy, powerfully spiky taste transforms the mild flavor of a cold tofu plate, for example. Najia serves a wonderful salad of toon sprouts (pictured left), lightly dressed and topped with tiny, savory dried fish. Divine. Julienned radish mixed with ‘dried meat floss’ and wrapped in a steamed cabbage leaf to be sliced sushi style (pictured left) was also wonderful, as were fried mushrooms in goose liver sauce. ‘Tossed mutton liver with daisy-like vegetable’ (pictured below) pleasingly combined the rich taste of the liver with the sharp, arugula-ish greens, and was a reminder of mutton’s importance in all the cuisines of north China. Though it does not seem particularly Manchurian, one of the house specialties is ‘fried shrimp with crisp skin in secret recipe’ (pictured above), nicely sauced, butterflied prawns with papery shells so fragile each one can be eaten whole–a crowd pleaser, to be sure, but I liked the veggies even more. We ordered ‘baked bread with minced venison and Chinese dates’ and it turned out to be braised pork belly. Huh?? I wish we’d ordered the celery with salmon roe and caviar instead, or the ‘beef ribs with rice stem dscn1480_small-2flavor’.

Najia Xiaoguan,10 Yon’an Xili, west of the 119 Middle School, south of the LG twin towers, off Jianguomenwai Dajie, Chunxiu Lu, Chaoyang District, 6567-3663 or 6568-6553. Near the Yonganli metro stop. Reservations needed. There is also a branch in the Haidian District (the university area to the west), south of the Fragrant Hills Botanical Garden crossroad, 8259-8588.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ninth Gate Snacks

Ninth Gate Snacks

Feel like a street food experience in Beijing? Jiu Men Xiao Chi, or Ninth Gate Snacks, is a popular option with both tourists and locals. This large indoor space (in an old hutong building just off Houhai) is packed with laohizao  (old famous brand) snack stalls, most of which were formerly located in the lively area around Qianmen in the old Chinese city, before being forced out by roaring development. Their new complex covers all things dumpling and many, many other “small eats”, and is always crowded with noise and laughter. Head first to the cashier counter and buy a debit card–the smallest purchasable denomination is RMB 50, but if you don’t spend it all, just return to the cashier at the end for your change. Then take your tray from stall to stall and choose at will, as the vendors deduct prices from your card. There is flexibility: last time I was there, I was alone, and asked a vendor if I could have an order of 3 dumplings, instead of the standard 6 (small) or 9 (large) order. Ninth Gate Snacks Int.He obligingly ran my card over to the cashier to get a little money back on my extra-small plate. If it’s a hot day, you’ll appreciate the cold pink lemonade and orange juice being sold just inside the entrance. Honestly? The food is not the greatest in town. But as a one-stop place to enjoy Beijing’s most famous snacks in a down-home setting that feels street-like but is much better organized, cleaner, and more comfortable, it rocks. Jiu Men Xiao Chi, 1 Xiaoyou Hutong, at the northernmost corner of Houhai, just off the lake-side walkway. There are many signs to guide you to the restaurant, once you get close to the hutong-mouth. The nearest major intersection is Deshengmennei Dajie and Gulou Xidajie. 10 AM-10 PM. 6402-5858.

 

One challenge to anyone visiting Beijing is the traffic: I won’t lie to you, it’s awful. Despite reliable taxis, moving around on surface streets — or using the metro and your feet — can take a lot of time. For this reason it’s always nice to know of an excellent restaurant right next to a major tourist attraction, where you might find yourself at mealtime. Li Qun, profiled above, is close to Qianmen, the only one of Beijing’s city gates to remain standing, which is located on the southern end of Tiananmen Square.

Also close to Qianmen is the Dashilar shopping district, a popular destination for tourists. The walled city which once stood inside Qianmen gate was the home of the ruling Manchus during the Qing Dynasty, and outside the gate sprawled the lively Chinese city with its shops, restaurants, theaters, and brothels. A reasonably successful effort has been made to preserve the medieval feel of this area, with the prime strolling streets in Dashilar and nearby Liulichang (Beijing’s historical epicenter of traditional Chinese arts and antiques) preserved for pedestrians only. Stalls selling local snacks and cheap souvenirs coexist along Dashilar with venerable old shops such as the expensive Ruifuxiang, seller of silk yardage and garments. While your wallet is out, stop for lunch at another longstanding institution, Goubuli, a famous Tianjin dumpling restaurant which has opened a branch here in a beautifully restored old building. Tall ceilings, hushed ambience, and crisp tablecloths suggest that specialty dumplings will not be cheap, but go ahead, order the crabmeat dumplings or the prawn-and-chive dumplings—when do you ever get crabmeat dumplings filled with actual fresh crabmeat? The restaurant has mercy on you and allows you to order these high end dumplings one by one (22 yuan each for the crab, 16 for the prawn) instead of committing to a standard order of 8. A range of hot dishes is available, including mains and many vegetable sides, but the gloried specialty here is dumplings, held to a high standard of artistry, each closed with no less than 18 pleats. If you speak Chinese, ignore the restaurant’s rather alarming name (roughly ‘a dog wouldn’t touch it’)—it refers to an old story about the founding of the restaurant, not the quality of the fare. Goubuli, 31Dazhalan Jie, 7:30 A.M.-10 P.M.  English menu with some pictures.    

If you go to Yonghegong, one of the city’s most visited temples, an outstanding lunch can be had a short walk away at Jin Ding Xuan, a dim sum palace. The name means “Golden Tripod Attic” and indeed the sprawling restaurant looks old inside, full of latticed wood and narrow stairs. Close to 100 dim sum dishes, including many items not seen in the West and lots of specialty noodles, porridges and soups, are offered on a laminated menu complete with English translations and tiny photos. Open 24 hours, for when those dim sum urges strike at 3 A.M.  Jin Ding Xuan, #77 Hepingli Xijie, Yonghegongqiao, just across the ring road from the Yonghegong (Lama Temple), and close to the south gate of Ditan Park.

Nanjing Imp.2After a busy morning in the Sanlitun district, where cafes and bars coexist with shiny skyscrapers and creative types gather, a restorative lunch is needed, preferably in a pleasing environment. Against all odds, the 4th floor of the glitzy Shimao Shopping Centre contains such a place. Nanjing Impressions is an indoor approximation of an outdoor street market specializing in the snacks of Nanjing—slightly phony, but enjoyable and fairly good. Old-fashioned wooden tables-and-stools, bamboo-laced lanterns, and open snack stalls displaying their wares complete the picture of another place and time. From the stalls, you can point-and-pick from a wide variety of dumplings, turnip cakes, fried seasoned sticky rice squares, steamed or griddled stuffed breads, skewers, noodle preparations, and much more. A full range of hot dishes can be ordered from Nanjing Imp. 1the menu; we enjoyed fried slivered mushrooms and garlicky stir-fried choy sum. Stewed chicken with mushroom is popular, but be aware that the chicken is chopped up with bones intact. Nanjing Impressions, 4th Floor, Shimao Shopping Centre, 10 Gongrentiyuchangbei Lu. Across from Workers’ Stadium. 11-2 P.M.. 5-11 P.M.

 

 

 

If you visit the popular Prince Gong’s Mansion, not far away, to the north, near Deshengmennei Dajie and Gulou Xidajie, you will find Jiu Men Xiaochi, Ninth Gate Snacks.

And should you feel the need for a meal or an excellent drink after spending an afternoon exploring the Drum Tower and its surrounding historic neighborhood, slip into Café Sambal. It may not be a great cuisine destination, and prices are on the high side, but it’s a truly wonderful place to relax. Owner Cho is from Malaysia; he’s re-done an old courtyard house to make it feel like your hip home away from home. The bar makes terrific mojitos and caipirinhas, the Malaysian-Chinese food is consistently good (don’t miss the addictive four-corner beans in ‘cashew nut sauce’; these goa beans are actually sauced with a paste of garlic and ground candle-nuts, closer to macadamias). The atmosphere is sophisticated, welcoming, and relaxed. No wonder ex-pats and Chinese alike fill this place every evening. Certain friends of mine have been known to spend more time at Cafe Sambal, late at night, than they do in their own apartments. Café Sambal, #43 DouFuChi Hutong, Jiu Gulou Da Jie, 6400-4875. Located just inside a small hutong several hutongs north of the drum tower on Jiugulou. On the east side of Jiugulou, where it intersects with this hutong (on that corner there also happens to be a public bathroom) a small sign announces Café Sambal. The restaurant/bar is actually located just inside the hutong. A short walk from the Bamboo Garden Hotel.  Second Beijing location added: 10F North Bd., Parkson Dept Store, #101 Fuxingmennei Dajie, 6653-5120.