Uncle Shu-Shu

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Lánzhōu Zhèngzōng Shǒulāmiàn 兰州正宗手拉面

In an alley off Wenlin Jie 文林街

Shabbiness: 4 laowais

Food: 4 laowais

Mood: Refugee camp

Concept: Late night drunk food

This Kunming institution in the alley next to the entrance of Wenlin Memento is one of two near-identical muslim places in the same decrepit building, both of which has the concept of almost never closing, serving late night post-drinking binge-food to the city’s bar crowd. Like all truly proper muslim places, they both serve shaokao (that is, barbecue), and have a nearly identical picture menu with classical staples like a plethora of hand-pulled noodles, noodle soups, fried rice, gaifan and similar chinese comfort food. The main difference between them is that one has recently renovated and is therefore less shabby than it used to be, which makes the other one, colloquially dubbed ‘Uncle Shu-Shu’, the obvious choice.  Also, Uncle Shu-Shu has better food, and a bigger outdoor seating, and nothing can really compare to the insane frustration of sitting down for dinner in the alley, and then suddenly having to move because some fucktard with a ridiculously huge car just has to squeeze the beast through this tiny alley even though it doesn’t lead anywhere. And upon asking him “why, god, why so big?”, he proudly answers: “大是好” (Big is good) .

CIMG1105The outdoor seating is probably the main feature of Uncle Shu-Shu, but you might also wanna experience the interior of the place, which manages to look improbably similar to a makeshift barack made out of sheet metal, fabric and old cardboard, combined with generous amounts of tin foil from the set of some B-sci-fi-movie. There’s dirty glass/plastic windows trying to wall of the kitchen areas, which is not strictly necessary because the area where they actually cook the food is hidden away from sight in a dark, remote corner man was not meant to know, saving you the horror of  actually having a clue what goes on in there. As one sits down on the broken plastic footstools one might briefly toy with the notion that the place is rather decent (it does have a cozy wooden roof), but then comes the sensation of the fat-encrusted tables and walls and the flies swarming around to their tiny hearts’ content. The sheer popularity of Uncle Shu-Shu does ensure a high customer turnover, and the thrash cans are of course there to be missed, so don’t ever put your bag on the floor here, ever. Yet, all of this, the roofs and corners stained black from decades of smoke, the cracks in the floor, the dirty, Harbin Beer-sponsored wallpapers about to peel off…while definitely a true, hardcore shabbyplace in its own right, it just can’t compare to Shípíng Shāokǎo.

CIMG1108The reason you’d visit Uncle Shu-Shu is mostly, however, because they make good food, and does so while being open at those really inconvenient dark hours when you’re truly 饿死了. The 炒饭, fried rice, is better here than at almost any other place, and the various fried noodles dishes are savory, tasty, just spicy enough, and almost guaranteed to make you full. The staff will happily make ridiculously spicy food for you if that’s your idea of awesome, and they somehow have an uncanny ability to make all the vegetables in their dishes feel weirdly fresh (probably a masterful illusion). The food here won’t win any awards, and there’s better places if you want gaifan (dishes on rice) and barbecue, but Uncle Shu-Shu will always deliver your noodle fix, and whether you want their great 丁丁炒面 (fried noodles chopped in tiny pieces so you can just gobble it up with a spoon, for when you’re too drunk for chopsticks) , their 新疆拉面 (cold Xinjiang noodles that you mix with a bowl of meat and vegetable matter) or the ubiquitous noodle soup, satisfaction is almost guaranteed.

One of the few places we've seen with the dreaded 'C'-rating, and proudly displaying it. (We've never ever seen any place, no matter how fancy, with an 'A', so we assume the minimum requirement for that is a really fat bribe).
One of the few places we’ve seen with the dreaded ‘C’-rating, and proudly displaying it. (We’ve never ever seen any place, no matter how fancy, with an ‘A’, so we assume the minimum requirement for that is a really fat bribe).

 

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.

The Truck Stop Restaurant That Was Actually Good

In the desert between Ürümqi and Kashgar

Shabbiness: 2 laowais

Food: 4 laowai

Mood: Lively

Concept: Communist caravanserai

We have earlier discussed the strange phenomenon of truck stop restaurants in China always being horrible to some degree. Yet, sooner or later, we were bound to come across one that was not bad, and we did – in the middle of the desert, of course. Literally. Around this place, for as long as the eye can see, is only endless, lifeless wasteland with scattered patches of dying grass. Yet the place itself is quite lively, at least when the long-distance buses drop by; full of people chatting, playing, eating, or just hanging around. We can imagine it has been like this for a very long time, just with the camels and horses gradually replaced by roaring metallic beasts, and adobe and brick caravanserais gradually turned into communist concrete. It didn’t look promising, for sure, though outdoor seating is always a plus. Amazingly though, all the chairs and tables match and are remarkably clean, almost shining, and the tableware also match, though it looks extremely 70’s (orange plastic, fuck yeah). Sure, the interior of the building looks like an abandoned mental hospital, but nobody ever sits inside anyhow (though our driver at one point disappears into the building for a suspiciously long time, despite the toilets being in a separate building outside. We have no idea what he’s doing).

Except for a quite nice outdoor seating, this place also has what might be the largest sign known to civilised man, so ridiculously overdone that it has to get bonus points just for the effort. As previously noted, the building itself is unremarkable, and the kitchen, whatever horrors might or might not be there, is hidden away deep inside it. One worrying sign, though, is the fact that the inbred-looking guy cleaning the toilets is a few moments later seen serving plates of watermelon to people. There is also a lot of cute uighur babies roaming about, which adds more to the atmosphere than the shabbiness, as there’s no sign that they’re even near the kitchen. All in all, this might be the cleanest and nicest chinese truck stop restaurant we’ve ever seen, and certainly so within Xinjiang itself – most similar places here are sheer horror, or at least depressing beyond belief. That being said, what we do get to see of the inside is…a different story, and that and the toilet guy does raise the shabbiness rating to two. The service is impersonal and extremely slow, though the watermelons are a nice touch (if you ignore for a moment who delivers them).

With this distinct lack of shabbiness in mind (there’s a few sheep in the vicinity, but no other animals in sight), we would ordinarly suspect the food to turn out to be utterly disappointing, but no, not here. We get a pot of good tea and a bowl of cold laghman noodles, over which is added a plate of random diced meat/vegetable stuff. And it’s quite tasty. The meat is not too laowai-friendly, but tender and warm, and the onions and the bell peppers have a nice and fresh taste and consistency, not oily or slimy. But especially the noodles themselves are a surprise, with a hearthiness you seldom find in boring Kunming varieties – just the kind of hearthiness one’d want in truck stop food. Despite slight stomach sickness and some initial reservations against uighur food, we leave this place feeling fulfilled, our taste buds pleased but not challenged, and travel onward to new culinary adventures and new confrontations with shabbiness, deeper into China’s vast western lands.