Qián Yuán | 黔园

Wenhua Xiang 文化巷CIMG1139

Shabbiness: 3 laowais

Food: 4 laowais

Mood: Soul-crushing

Theme: Dead donkey deliciousness

After last time’s less-than-delicious dog meat we resolved to go back to something we knew were awesome, that is, dead donkeys. (Thanks to Food Ergo Love for tipping us off on this one). Qián Yuán over at Wenhua Xiang has a dish of this as their flagship of sorts, and originally it seemed to us most of their dishes except the donkey one were rather bland. As we continue to go through Qing Yuan’s menu, however, surprises appear, though mostly consisting of standard choices that are almost always good, like cold cucumber drenched in vinegar, garlic and lajiao, grandmother potatoes, Yunnan’s classical goat cheese, and everything you can possibly do with an eggplant. The dishes whose quality can normally be considered a benchmark for the skills of a chef, like 鱼香肉丝, Qián Yuán notably fails with, however, giving them a weird and bland taste. Whatever the case, the donkey meat with some cilantro and sichuan CIMG1129pepper really is fucking godawesome, and would be well worth it even if the rest of the menu consisted of food from Truck Stop in the Middle of Nowhere. There’s thus nowhere in hell the food rating can be lower than a 4, though there are some letdowns  here and there in the menu.

The shabbiness of Qing Yuan mostly consist of an overtly crammed and soul-crushingly impersonal feel, complete with horrible, thick plastic table sheets, white tableware (i.e, the most boring color imaginable), and a general lack of even a failed effort at decoration.  This is especially true in the upstairs area, that thanks to the bare, tiled walls feels vaguely like a public bathroom. The lighting is also to blame; white, bright and clinical in a way reminiscent of a demented dentist’s office.  The downstairs is significantly less depressive, partly due to always being more bustling, partly due to a nice and shabby internal window with foodstuffs on display.  But it has the same godawful light.

Is there any way it could be more depressive?
Is there any way it could be more depressing?

While not especially unclean, Qián Yuán nevertheless manages to be one of Kunming’s most bizarre eating experiences, due to the almost unbearably horrible atmosphere in stark contrast to the somewhat impressive food. The place is often packed to the gills, which we hope is because the locals know the food is 不错, and not because they in some perverted way actually appreciate the atmosphere. Whatever the case, Qián Yuán is yet another proof that good food in China is found in the most horrible environments.

Chòngqìng Kǒukǒuxiāng Shāokǎo | 重庆口口香烧烤

Mayuan daokou 麻园道口CIMG1169

Shabbiness: 4 laowais

Food: 4 laowais

Mood: Neighborhood joint

Theme:  Shāokǎo virtuosity

Tonight we went to explore the fundamental chinese institution of night shāokǎo (barbecue), in a place just off where the famous narrow gauge train tracks intersects Dianmian avenue. Chòngqìng Kǒukǒuxiāng Shāokǎo was reputed to have Kunming’s best shāokǎo (at least according to one trustworthy but subjective source), so we were slightly giddy with anticipation.  It turns out this place is truly above the norm, with a bbq master that’ll lovingly tend to every skewer, sprinkling liberally with spicy goodness like it was an art form. He’ll also happily shāokǎo the hell out of any random wierd shit you might have brought along, like in our case with some dog meat we bought up on Hongshan donglu just to make the experience a tad wierder. Chòngqìng Kǒukǒuxiāng Shāokǎo has a good selection of stuff, and does initially seem to be more keen on cleanliness than others, having the skewers on display covered in a plastic film. We quickly notice an insect crawling around underneath, however, giving us the comfortable assurance that this is indeed a proper shabbyplace. (In case you’re picky (read: whiny), the laoban will still happily fetch new skewers of stuff from inside the restaurant, but given how it looks inside that isn’t necessarily a guarantee of freshness).

CIMG1161The lotus roots are supposed to be good, and indeed, they are, with a perfect amount of spiciness that makes them just about the best barbecued ones we’ve ever had. There’s also a kind of long, thin fish that’s absolutely delicious (and a bargain, at just five kuai), as well as nice skewers of lamb, beef, leek, fish balls and mushrooms that are all not too oily, not too spicy (which one of us would argue is a drawback in the meat’s case, but we did ask for bu tai la…), and just generally a treat. It’s not the epitome of culinary  exquisiteness (shāokǎo from a steel wagon in a god-forsaken back alley seldom is, despite the theme of this blog), but it is lovingly and masterfully barbecued, and definitely worth the excursion unless you’re in Chenggong  or something. The dog experience shouldn’t really be part of this review as you’ll have to go to the dog place on Hongshan donglu for that (it’s easy to find, just look for a mutilated dog carcass on a plate…), but look if we care; it ought to be said to the barbecue master’s credit that he manages  to make the rather boring taste moderately more interesting after a short stint on his grill.


The outdoor seating do compromise our ability to truly savor the shabbiness, but in a nice Kunming night like this one even we can’t bear to go inside; a true  shāokǎo experience is supposed to take place under the stars (meaning, the smog). But we do make sure to explore a bit, and it’s shabby indeed, with the compulsory decrepit plastic footstools, greasy miniscule tables, a random and dirty wash basin in a wierd crevice in the wall, visible and rusty plumbing, a complete lack of any decoration whatsoever, and a generally soulless urban decay feeling. It’s still not Shípíng Shāokǎo-style horror, but well on the level of Uncle Shu-Shu; a true and properly shabby hole-in-the-wall of the kind western health inspectors would close down quicker than you could say ‘laduzi’.

The master at work

The Shabbyplace with a Michelin Star

The crowd outside.
The crowd outside.

Tim Ho Wan
Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Hongkong (has since moved).

Shabbiness: 1 laowai

Food: 5 laowais

Mood: Swedish kebab joint

Concept: Queue from hell

Sooner or later, we were of course bound to end up here. As we approach, we see an intimidating line of laowai, mainlanders and locals, and we’re told we’ll need to wait for two hours for a table. We resolve to do so, as this just has to be experienced. Here’s why:


Tim Ho Wan is supposedly the world’s cheapest Michelin starred-cubbyhole, at last back in 2010, and that was of course something we’d have to do a bonus feature about: how shabby could this possibly be?

CIMG8950Not that shabby, is the answer, but it’s still very far from fancy-pants fusion molecular cuisine concept restaurants with snobbish dress codes (that’s another Michelin starred place in Hong Kong). The interior design in Tim Ho Wan, or rather the lack of it, do manage to be somewhat reminiscent of  swedish budget pizzerias and kebab joints, and this is indeed an achievement considering this restaurant is basically world famous and has a two hour waiting line.  There’s the classically tasteless plastic fake wooden walls, posters with pointless and unappealing pictures of random food that they probably don’t serve, and a cramped kitchen complete with dirty, moist windows and ancient smoke stains forming black patches in the roof.  It”s nowhere near mainland levels of shabbiness, but it does give off a cramped, impersonal and slightly decrepit feel that wouldn’t be out of place in the very shabbiest (comparatively speaking) swedish fast food joints.

CIMG8938The food, like most cantonese fair, looks extremely unappealing, like random grey, yellow and orange blotches of sticky goo and slimy white sheets. The actual taste, however, is more like how we assume divine nectar might taste in the garden of paradise. Okay, slight exaggeration maybe, but it is, as the chinese would say, 不错; not bad. At all. By any stretch of the imagination.

Fucking awesome.

The yellow:ish watery rice-pudding thing is interesting, but lacks a bit of zeist, it’d benefit from some more sugar or salt we feel. The large selection of various random steamed dough and meat buns are increasingly good as we work through it, with tasty soy, great consistency, savory  feel; there’s something interesting going on in our mouths with every bite. The sticky rice is absoutely amazing,  with nice texture and perfect temperature, the xiao long bao is a dream for anybody who enjoys their slimy dumplings (some of us doesn’t, but still has to confess the filling is semi-divine).

The amazing glaced pork bread buns.

The highlight is arguably a kind of (pardon us for not knowing the names of cantonese food) dough buns stuffed with fine pork in sweet glace, that are such a taste sensation that we’d have to spend two pages of word spam trying to find the right way to describe it.

In summary, Tim Ho Wan is a great food adventure in an impersonal and basic setting, the only thing really missing for it to be a true chinese shabbiness experience is the lack of miniscule footstools, screaming babies and badly edited Maoist propaganda posters. Like much of Hong Kong, it feels a little bit more western, and therefore less true. Yet, the food here is as amazingly cheap as it is good, worth both the long wait and a detour, deserving it’s Michelin star (though we know a few mainland eateries that would  as well, if it came down to food quality only, as it really should).

Jiànshuǐ Shāguō Guòqiáoyuán | 建水砂锅过桥园

283 Xuefu lu 学府路

Shabbiness: 3 laowais

Food: 4 laowais

Mood: Late 70’s bar in Ukraine

Concept: Not knowing the difference between and qǐng

As we continue our exciting foodie odyssey on Xuefu lu, let’s stop a moment and consider the essence of Xuefu lu. In the hometown of half the crew, there’s a place similar to Xuefu lu called Nobelvägen, an absurdly long road that’s sort of in the outskirts of the city center, and inexplicably soul-crushingly depressing. It’s so depressing, in fact, that somebody made a film about it.

What’s the deal with places like these? We don’t know, really; except for being fucking ugly, there simply seem to be some kind of inherent quality in absurdly long roads in the outskirts of city centers,  giving them a sense of emptiness, depressiveness and, most importantly, shabbiness. Hence our fondness for Xuefu lu. (And if one dares venture into the alleys off Xuefu lu and Nobelvägen alike, tons of interesting stuff, and even more shabby places, can be found. We’ll get back to that in a week or two).

Anyhow, back on track. At first glance, Jiànshuǐ shāguō guòqiáoyuán doesn’t seem like much, which is of course sort of the point of this blog. We had a mediocre 鱼香肉丝, fish-smelling pork, and the same evening got stomach cramps straight out of Avici, which is probably not a coincidence. But we gave the place another shot, and it grows on you, like all good restaurants should (though we’re enough viking that sometimes a straightforward haochi-kick in the face is the right way to go). Their 韭菜, chinese chives, is absolutely stunning, their 腌菜, some kind of sour, pickled thing, as well, their Gongbao chicken does have every ingredient it should, unlike in most Kunming restaurants, and their 请教肉丝, meat slices with bell peppers, is great. The first time we come, the rice is cold, but this has never since been the case, and you even get the dishes served separately from the rice, so if you want to share, it’s very convenient. The soup accompanying everything is usually not great, though, and shouldn’t really be referred to as ‘soup’; it’s more a weird-tasting broth of some kind.

As for the room, it does have a fancy counter, like several neighboring places (is it some trend on Xuefu lu?), and the tables are usually quite clean, though ridiculously narrow. The interior has a cozy black-grey-color scheme going on that does not feel in the least clean, especially as it’s probably just a neat method of hiding all the smoke stains. The kitchen itself is quite horrible, but more in the sense ‘never over my dead body would I willingly work there’, than ‘you lose a little bit of sanity just by looking at it’, which was the case with Shípíng Shāokǎo.  Jiànshuǐ shāguō guòqiáoyuán also has these pointless food ads on the walls that you see in so many shabbyplaces, bleached and unappetizing, and presumably having nothing whatsoever to do with what’s on the menu. An interesting feature here, however, is that they’re some third world form of LCD displays. Also noteworthy is the very improvised and basic outdoor seating, just next to the waste baskets. During the day, you might sometimes see the crew (who are occasionally remarkably happy happy joy joy) chop huge chunks of meat on a table outside, letting the uncut meat lie and fester on the dirty sidewalk. Yet another noteworthy, increasingly irritating, feature is the staff’s utter inability do understand the difference between 请教肉丝 and 辣椒肉丝, even though they’re both in the menu as separate dishes. We’re vikings, not random laowais, get with the program; we want lajiao, not qingjiao, we want our food spicy like there’s no tomorrow! (And there isn’t, ’cause Raganrök will come…or the retarded December 21 thing…or not).

While the shabbiness level here, in the end, is just average (it’s not clean in any way, but we’ve seen so, so much worse), Jiànshuǐ shāguō guòqiáoyuán did re-ignite our faith in this blog’s purpose.  The thing is, as we’ve now ventured far and wide into Kunming’s restaurant scene for many months, it gradually seemed like the fact was that more expensive restaurants were  almost always better (as in, more haochi) than the shabby hole-in-the-walls. With this review, however, we’ve again found that you can actually have good food in Kunming for less than 15 kuai, though you  might have to pay up if you want something truly delicious (we’ll get back to you on that one, too).

Lánzhōu Fēngwèi Niúròumiàn | 兰州风味牛肉面

Yieryi dajie 236  一二一大街 236

Shabbiness: 3 laowais

Food: 3 laowais

Mood: Zergling pit

Concept: Hajj fundraiser

This place’s strategic location just off the bridge from Wenlin jie makes it a favorite haunt of not only university students tired of inedible canteen food, but legions of kids from the nearby school(s), who descend on Lánzhōu Fēngwèi Niúròumiàn like a large scale zerling rush at lunchtime. (Consequently, this place might be better suited for a dinner time visit, though now that they have the barbecue grill open already at noon, it’s less of a dealbreaker). Among the many fans have always been a select part of this blog’s crew, though we’re slowly getting a little disillusioned regarding the food. There’s no question about the happy happy joy joy:ness of Lánzhōu Fēngwèi Niúròumiàn‘s crew, though; they’re basically the nicest guys in town, despite a sometimes insane workload, so we find ourselves returning over and over, hopefully financing the laoban’s future journey to Mecca.  It should be noted that while the crew are awesome dudes (and dudette), at least the laoban is also somewhat devout; don’t bring alcohol into his restaurant, and don’t photograph him (therefore, we have less pictures of the restaurant itself than normally when we do a review, go see it for yourselves instead).

“I’m a little teapot, short and stout…”

The cramped kitchen is remarkable for its blackened walls and lack of visible storage space; we’ve often wondered if they keep all the food ingredients in some magical muslim hammerspace. The previously epic windowlessness has been somewhat mitigated since they punched a hole to the kitchen through one of the interior walls, though this mostly serves to give you a better view of the horror inside. The eating area, however, is quite clean for being a hole-in-the-wall, with walls that you actually dare lean against and nice-looking wooden tables. (We should also mention the soy pots in low-quality plastic, who against all odds manages to be cute). The wall posters are the epically kitschy ones you see in all muslim restaurants; the exact same picture menu, a bird’s eye view of Mecca, and some  praying girls in hijab who looks rather drugged. It all serves to create a very genuine halal-hole-in-the-wall-feeling.

As for the food, the menu is nice andvaried, but we tend to find the dishes too oily and in some cases rather flavourless (though superior to the nearby university canteen food, of course). The big plate of Xinjiang chicken is always a treat if you’re a large group, though bony and rather non-laowai friendly, otherwise the homemade noodles are generally a better choice than the rice dishes, with a nice texture to them. The fried rice is also quite good, not oily at all, well seasoned, and cheap. The barbecue skewers are a good complement to most anything, never bony, rather big, and delicously seasoned, actually among the best we’ve had in Kunming. On a good day, the food here might deserve a better grade, but in general it’s solid but doesn’t stand out; some dishes might be welcome surprises, but others just rather tasteless and way too moist.

Go here to chat with the staff, have some meat skewers or noodles, but don’t expect anything out of the ordinary. The large customer base and good location does, however, make Lánzhōu Fēngwèi Niúròumiàn one of Kunming’s better people-watching spots.

Delicious Benefits | 锦品居

259 Xuefu lu 学府路

Shabbiness: 1 laowai

Food: 2 laowais

Mood: Disappointment

Concept: Luxury hole in the wall

As we enter this place with slight anticipation, two questions come up: is it a new trend in Kunming with fancy, clean hole-in-the-walls, and how clean can a place be and still qualifiy for a review on this blog? At first, we actually doubt whether we should make this review at all, because this place is almost spotless. The furniture is both normal-sized, clean and matchin (no diminuitive randomly colored footstools here), the walls are freshly painted, and the roof is as spotless as any we’ve seen in China. Were it not for the fancy black wall menu and a glittering bar-style counter that looks like it has been taken directly from Muse or some other concept nightclub, Delicious Benefits would feel as soulless as Hēilóngjiāng Jiǎozi Diàn next door – and then some.  Even the floor is spotless, and we actually see people cleaning the kitchen; words can’t really express how big that is in Kunming.  There is however a mysteriously  large amount of flies, as if something rotten is actually hidden away somewhere, and some food items are kept out in the open on a table in the corner. Nevertheless, there can be only one  shabbiness grade for a place such as this;  the lowest. This place could easily be a restaurant in Europe, though there is some weird, nondescript second world-feel to the general look of it.

The staff can, to their credit, actually recommend some dishes, but this turns out to be very much not to their credit in the end, as the food we get is extremely mediocre. The appetizer soup is actually the best we’ve had in Kunming (and the fridge where the beverages are kept is remarkably cold), but the main courses are bland and extremely non-laowai-friendly, with meat mostly consisting of bone and huge lumps of fat, the seasoning weak and plain, and the broth doesn’t taste much of anything. (The rice is warm though; small relief). Interestingly enough, this actually reinforces the basic assumption of this blog; the fancy places do not have the best food. With our raison d’être thus assured, we leave Delicious Benefits (a name which, by the way, has to be ironic), and are not likely to return.

At least it looked good...

Truck Stop in the Middle of Nowhere

Road between Kunming and Jinghong

Shabbiness:  4 laowais

Food: 1 laowai

Mood: Soviet school canteen

Concept: Human cattle feeding

We’re introduced to this restaurant by the bus driver hitting the brakes without warning, shouting something like “chifan le!”. The message is clear: we’re not welcome to eat here, we’re supposed to eat here. The whole feeling is about as warm as a bunch of pigs’ daily feeding in a tray; even a school canteen in rural Kongo is, we assume, more personal.

You can even see that it's bad...

To further add to the death of all potential for a culinary experience, we’re supposed to eat quickly, basically stuff ourselves with overpriced, cold and shitty food as fast as humanly possible and then obediently do a goose march back into the bus. I don’t really understand the deal with chinese truck stops; while truck stops in Europe may have just as horrible an atmosphere, at least they always tend to have hearthy food. Truck stops in China, on the other hand, always seems to be some kind of relic communist dystopia; how do they manage to always have incredibly disappointing food? Here, we’re treated to the poorest, wateriest tomatoes-and-egg we’ve ever encountered, and  a general assortment of tasteless meat and overcooked vegetables, all lukewarm. Though we’re initially hesitant to call it what it is, we’ll do so now in hindsight: it’s a disaster.

The premises almost have it all; dirty walls, floor covered with used napkins and chopsticks, greasy plastic table covers, sun-bleached posters portraying  utterly generic things, generic piles of thrash lying about, and dogs and chickens walking about our feet as we eat. That latter part gives an interesting feel of third-world countryside, which does boost the shabbiness grade quite a bit; you just know that the chickens might end up in a soup at any minute. In stark contrast to all this, there are real and matching chairs, no plastic footstools here, but this fact can only take away so much from the general impression. This unnamned place is not one we would willingly visit again, though there is some morbid curiosity as to if there are any good truck stop restaurants in China, not to mention how bad it could possibly get in even more obscure locations.

Chéngdū Dàn Dàn Miàn | 成都担担面

16 Cang Yuan Xiang 仓园巷Chéngdū Dàn Dàn Miàn

Shabbiness: 2 laowais

Food: 3 laowais

Mood: Cozy familial

Theme: Outdoor seating

The first of several small restaurants tucked away on an alley next to Green Lake Park, the staff here immediately and enthusiastically greets us in what little english they know, in stark contrast to the less-than-warm welcoming we got  at the Hēilóngjiāng  jiaozi place. We’re further treated to a somewhat lavish picture menu, and outdoor seating in the evening sun; though on metallic benches in that particulary shabby shade we’ll hereafter dub “eyesore blue”.

While the restaurant isn’t the cleanest on earth, windows provide full insight into the kitchen, so we can be assured there is nothing hideous going on inside. There is also evidence for at least some vague effort to spice up the place; a random painting hangs on the wall, and there’s a swiss looking clock that’s so marvelously random it’s awesome. Somehow, the apparent happiness of the staff also detracts from the feeling of shabbiness; in a really shabby place, we reason, the staff should be ugly, grumpy, indolent and boring, here they are the exact opposite. While the outdoor seating has to be considered the main bonus feature, the neon sign is another nice touch that we assume to be the staff’s pride and  joy. There’s also a screaming baby that’s occasionally carried into the kitchen to drool everywhere, a recurring theme from Hēilóngjiāng Jiǎozi Diàn. While it there added to the angst-inducing atmosphere, it mainly makes things even more familial and cozy here.

We’re recommended a dish, and order two more. They’re all savory and nicely spicey, though we’re a bit divided as to if there’s too much chili or not, and whether the mushrooms are overcooked. The meat-to-vegetables-ratio is surprisingly good, and the meat is mostly fillet, no fat and bones. We get the rice borderline cold however, which is deemed a major error, and in itself almost enough to lower the rating. Another issues is the fact that two of the dishes are clearly better than the third; even though shredded pork and green beans are supposed to be really good, we find ourselves having much of it left when the other food is long gone, so something must have been wrong with it (too little seasoning, maybe?). The food is enjoyable, but not exactly culinary delights, and the issue with the rice can’t be overlooked.

All in all, Chéngdū Dàn Dàn Miàn gets a disappointingly low grade on shabbiness; it’s more kitsch than genuine horror, and a place with outdoor seating on a terrace just can’t be considered that bad. (They even have matching plastic tableware with a red and black color scheme that almost makes it look like ceramics). The food rating is average; we’d go here again, but more because of the nice location and staff than any particular culinary pleasure.

Look how happy they are!

Hēilóngjiāng Jiǎozi Diàn | 黑龙江饺子店

261 Xuefu lu 学府路

Shabbiness: 1 laowai

Food: 4 laowais

Mood: No-nonsense

Concept: Fancy jiaozi

Because everything from a province named “Black dragon river” has to be considered cool, we were kind of enthusiastic about this place.  As we arrive, we’re promptly  informed that we can not get less than 10 jiaozi; we never get any explanation as to why. While not exactly unfriendly, the staff certainly does not go out of their way to make anybody feel at home; even the baby in the back of the room seem to feel the awkwardly loveless atmosphere, judging by the constant crying. The restaurant’s distinct lack of even the slightest form of decoration adds to this feeling, though something has to be said about the fact that the tables and the stools have a matching blue color, an eyesore though it may be.  Somehow, during the (extremely utilitarian, we assume) designing of this place, somebody must actually have had the freak thought that matching colors are nice. Another noteworthy touch is the alcohol shelf in the back; though it doesn’t do anything to detract from the clinically cold feeling,at least once could drink the pain away, like (we presume) they do all throughout the winter in Heilongjiang.

The liquor cabinet; a baby carriage in front.

The place is remarkably clean, which might not be so odd considering the whole hospital-feeling. (I’d be surprised if even cockroaches can stand the atmosphere here). Apart from the mind-numbing ugliness, there’s not much to be said about shabbiness here; even the kitchen seems (relatively, of course) clean. We all agreed, however, that the totally random container with eggs right besides the counter (see liquor-cabine-picture) had to be considered a bonus feature.

The food, as it turns out, isn’t bad at all. The fried jiaozi looks appetizing enough, are crisp and fresh, have the right relationship between meat and vegetables, and come with a nice garlic sauce. Though there is a somewhat “flowery” taste like sichuan pepper that we don’t really enjoy, all are agreed that this is some good jiaozi.

The final rating for Hēilóngjiāng Jiǎozi Diàn is actually very good in terms of the food, but as shabbiness go, we will undoubtedly encounter a horrifyingly vast amount of worse places.