With Ethan’s “ordering” Chinese steadily improving and a rash of new restaurant discoveries here in Qingdao, the outlook for eating out gets better by the day. But we’ve already had some absolutely unforgettable experiences with Chinese food. Although these have included adventures like being led back into a tiny, filthy kitchen to see the dubious options firsthand before we ordered, the real goal of this post is to make you jealous. So here they are, Lacey and Ethan’s top five meals so far in China.
5. Sightseeing in Xi’an is exhausting, and after a couple days of trying to wrap our minds around thousands of Terracotta warriors and endless kilometers of ancient city walls, we needed to sit down to a serious meal without having to think too hard about it. But when your speaking and comprehension are limited and your reading and writing hopelessly out of practice, this is a lot harder than it sounds. Raise the curtain on Wuyi Restaurant, a crowded local favorite where dozens upon dozens of classic northern Chinese dishes are heaped in hot pots behind a counter that runs the entire length of the restaurant. To order, we just had to walk up with our trays, point and pay. The atmosphere was high school cafeteria, but the food was just what we needed.
What we ate: Fried dumplings, beef with green onions, fried noodles, ‘vegetarian’ dumplings, and rice.
Ethan’s favorite: Without question, the fried jiaozi. Northern China’s famous dumplings are delicious on their own, but frying adds a sweet, sausagy flavor that couldn’t have been more perfect for a winter evening.
Lacey’s favorite: This meal was all about quantity over quality, but it was the perfect, most satisfyingly greasy food to eat after a day of sightseeing. I think the fried chicken skewer I grabbed on the way out the door was my favorite, althoughI wasn’t brave enough that day to go for the squid.
4. Thailand doesn’t border China, but it’s just over a hundred miles away from the far southern Chinese city of Jinhong, separated only by the narrow tips of northern Myanmar and Laos. Happily for us, Jinhong’s “Thai Restaurant,” where the Thai waitresses barely even spoke Chinese, made the distance moot. In our four days in Jinhong, we tucked our napkins in at this place three times. Our first meal there, though simple, was absolutely unforgettable.
What we ate: Pad Thai, coconut curry chicken, rice and beer.
Lacey’s favorite: The Pad Thai!It was much more simply done than in the States. Just a plate of noodles, and a squirt of lime – and so delicious. We were instantly addicted.
Ethan’s favorite: Since it would be redundant to say the amazing food, I’ll go with the price. The best Pad Thai I’ve ever had for only $1.50, and a large bottle of beer to wash it down for $0.50?Yes, please!And while I’m writing about shamelessly low prices, the hour-long $7 massages we had in Jinhong weren’t bad, either.
3. The most unexpected of our top five meals also took place in Yunnan Province, in the small town of Menglun just outside the twilit gates of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens. We were about to spend the night in a tent on the enormous garden grounds, but first, on our way into town to forage some cheap street barbeque, we were collared by ten-year-old Qiansiyang and her seven-year-old cousin. It took little more than a smiling “ni hao” before we’d been invited to dinner with Qiansiyang’s entire extended family of over a dozen folks, all of whom were visiting the park on vacation. Like us, they were out to find their dinner. Two hours later, we had chopsticked an incredible amount of scrumptious food off the giant three-foot lazy susan that spun at the center of the table, Lacey had (unwittingly) demanded no less than five “ganbei’s” (bottom’s up toasts) from various uncles and grandparents, and even Qiansiyang had been given her own glass of beer. And thanks to this incredible meal, for which it was insisted that we pay exactly nothing, we had a new southern Chinese family to call our own.
What we ate: Fish stew, fried eggplant, broccoli rabe, beef with something, chicken and something, veggies of one kind and another, warm things, cold things, crunchy things, garlicky things, savory things, sweet things . . . if only we knew what it all was, eating out in China would have been so much easier ever since!
Lacey’s favorite: Everything was so good, but that night I really appreciated the half dozen veggie dishes in rotation on the lazy susan including broccoli rabe, fried eggplant, and a kind of squiggly, crunchy root that I have yet to identify. Ordering veggies on my own continues to be a mystery – I always end up with a plate of fried celery.
Ethan’s favorite: I think the beef thing and the garlicky thing were my favorites, although the beer foisted on me throughout the meal by Qiansiyang’s dad, who sat next to me, makes it hard to remember which of the universally delicious dishes was actually the most delicious. Playing intermittent card tricks with Qiansiyang and her cousin (when they ventured over from the ‘kids’ table) was another highlight.
2. A couple weeks ago we took our first weekend trip to Beijing, where we visited friends and a fascinating cross-section of Beijing’s diverse sights and scenes. On Friday night a friend took us out to a popular spot for Beijing Duck, a meal which ultimately included a mind-boggling array of other delicious food along with the famous headliner. We ate for hours sitting on a lantern-lit courtyard deck with goldfish swimming underfoot, an experience well-worth the near-immobility that followed.
What we ate: Peking Duck (with Mandarin Pancakes), whole fried fish, sweet and sour chicken (Canton style), eggplant, white mushrooms in a vegetable stew, aged duck egg soup, cold noodles with chicken and peanut, and sweet pumpkin puffs.
Ethan’s favorite: The key to Peking Duck is the skin. I’m not sure what they do to it, but the same organ that makes fried chicken so greasy peels right off the duck in thin, sweet, and divinely crispy bursts of flavor. The cold noodles with chicken and peanut were also light and delicious.
Lacey’s favorite: This meal was all about pigging out in style. Our sweet and sour fried whole fish looked like it had been prepared by Edward Scissorhands. It wasn’t exactly beautiful, but it was memorable and delicious. And one of the chefs treated us to a noodle making performance while we ate, tossing up enormous coils of fresh dough like buoyant cords of silk.
1. We’ll call our number one meal the Qingdao Classic. A mere five-minute walk from our apartment, we almost missed the back-alley seafood restaurant that Ethan’s Chinese tutor had recommended, a well-kept local secret that people actually drive to eat at. But even after a warning about the dingy atmosphere, we were a little dismayed to see the bare, cavernous, brightly lit dining room. Fortunately, the waiter’s amazement at seating a pair of Westerners didn’t keep him from being extremely gracious as we were seated, and in a moment we got right back up again and were guided in to look at dinner. This was when the fun began; faced with a mind-boggling array of seafood in tanks and bins of all shapes and sizes, we finally chose a shellfish option (shoveled right out of a watery tray), a fish option (slapped directly on the scale for pricing before it was whisked away to be cooked for us), and a stew. The three words that best describe our number one dinner? Fresh, fresh, fresh.
What we ate: Fresh mussels, fresh flounder cooked in a curry-like sauce that made the meat both flakily tender and filling, fresh squid in a spicy broth of garlic and vegatables, and fresh Qingdao Beer (brewed, our waiter proudly told us, that same day).
Lacey’s favorite: I love picking my dinner out of a plastic tub, and the mussels were yum.
Ethan’s favorite: I’m tempted to say the beer, but the fact is that here in Qingdao, fresh beer is the standard. And the amazingly fresh seafood would be too obvious. So I have to go with the walk from home, which is probably the shortest I’ll ever have to take from my front door to get to the freshest seafood I may ever eat.