Hóng Jī Shānzhuāng | 鸿吉山庄

Xishan Maomaoqing Ma’an Shancun

西山猫猫箐马鞍山村

Shabbiness: 2 laowais

Food: 3 laowais

Mood: Abandoned Mediterranean resort

Concept: Adult playground

Three stars in Guide Rouge is supposed to mean ‘worth the trip’, something few restaurants in the world have amounted to. Paradoxically, though, this one just might. Maybe because the trip, or rather the trek, is quite short and inexpensive. Even so, this place basically made our day as we crossed the Western Hills, to end up in that intriguing place which some signs point to, but never explains: Maomaoqing. All we had to go on beforehand was a short comment by chinese people coming from there: “好吃”. To get chinese people to go anywhere, we figured, the food has to be good, and to get them to walk across a fucking mountain…that has to be haochi indeed. So we went viking to Maomaoqing, rowdy with anticipation.

Turns out Maomaoqing is quite a spread-out place with several dining options, so we’ll never know what the particular “haochi” refered to was. (Some of us had hoped for something fucked up like cat meat, given the name of the place, but were sorely disappointed). In the end, we headed towards an imposing, mediterranean style building that didn’t look too shabby, but had that third world-style concrete rural toilet that’s always an adventure, a rabid dog, and a rusty old gate that filled no discernable purpose, given that the walls were a low row of concrete bricks.

‘A’ is for awesome.

The main feature of this place is its godawesome outdoor seating, complete with ping pong table, pool table, hammocks, a swing, and a several meters long metal pole hanging from a bar between two trees; the (at the very least 50 years old) laoban can (and will) climb the entire length of this pole without using his feet, a feat so awesome it defies description. Even zombified vikings like us were dumbstruck, something that in itself should earn this restaurant five laowais in “awesome” if there was such a rating. Unfortunately for Hóng jī Shānzhuāng though, there is not. Still, the outdoor seating in itself does lower the shabbiness rating; while the kitchen is moderately horrible, and the indoor seating area so depressing we cannot fathom how anybody would ever elect to sit there, the outdoors area is just plain…nice, like a small oasis of green and beauty in the middle of a derelict junk jard. We could have stayed there for hours, and one of us almost refused to leave.

The food is very much not expensive, but fails to impress. We order a large selection of dishes, that we are then supposed to carry out to the tables in the outdoor green area by ourselves (probably, the staff cannot understand why on earth we would prefer to be there, rather than face the gloom inside, and thus came completely unprepared for this turn of events…)
It should be said that there’s some disagreement among our impressive host of guest reviewers as to the actual quality of the food. The meat dishes are definitely not bad, one even impressive, with a hearthy sauce and no bones or fat. The cabbage is plain and boring, as are, some of us think, the diced cucumber, mashed potatoes and most other vegetable dishes. Some speak in defense of the diced cucumber however, and the omnipresent egg-and-tomatoes is quite popular, quickly disappearing into our stomachs.

The truth of the matter is, however, that after 12> kilometers of walking up a mountain, all food is good food, and none of us leave this place unsatisifed. But we had higher expectations of the mysterious Maomaoqing, and the food alone in Hóng jī Shānzhuāng is not worth the journey. Seeing the ape-man-laoban being awesome though, most definitely is. In the end, one of us has almost been offered to marry his 180 cm tall daughter…

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.

Spam Alert

As the Kunming summer is too pleasant for our swedish constitutions, some of us decided to return to the comforting stillness in the cold, dark north, while others went on boot camp in China’s vast western deserts and the desolate mountains of Karakorum and Tibet. There, we learnt much about shabbiness, and food, and stomach sickness, and have finally returned to Kunming with new enthusiasm, strengthened digestive systems, and some reviews of truly god-forsaken places in the pipeline.

But the blog has in the meantime been severely infected by spam, and vikings as we are, we lack the technical skills to fix this in any smooth way (ask us about recipies for reindeer stew, though…) We have thus resorted to simply shutting of the comments function for now. If you still want to shower us in praise, you can do so by sending private messages to Natsymir on www.gokunming.com.

Thanks for your understanding, and look here once (or twice, or thrice…) in a blue moon, there’ll be updates soon.

Shípíng Shāokǎo | 石屏烧烤

94 Jianshe Lu 建设路 

Shabbiness:  5 laowais

Food: 3 laowais

Mood: Paradoxically cozy

Concept: Health inspection horror

Here it is, in all it’s glory; the place where you actually have to walk through the kitchen to get to the seating area, but it’s upping the ante even as we enter: the walk through the first kitchen just takes you to another one. Beyond that are several brighty lit rooms equipped with small tables and miniscule plastic footstools, all completely windowless. (Though there is a room between them that looks like some kind of garage which has a “window” in the form of various holes in the roof). Words cannot really do this justice; it’s like a descent into some small labyrinth of shabbiness, vaguely reminiscent of the Romanian slaughterhouse orgy level in Hitman Contracts. The walls in the seating rooms are painted in an uneven bleak color and the roof is cracked and discolored by, presumably, decades of smoke – and these are the least shabby rooms.

The middle “room” on a slow night; often it’s full of people. For the ultimate experience, go here when it’s raining…

As we pick stools from a pile and seat ourselves, one of us leans briefly against the wall, and bitterly regrets it. Amazingly, there actually is a fan, but it’s so old and dirty it’s brown and look like it’s covered with a rare combination of ash, fat deposits and the filth from underneath a bath tub. The sole decorations consist of withered posters with old beer ads, that almost succeds in feeling kitschy (but no, god no). Also amazing is the fact that Shípíng Shāokǎo is regularly full of people, especially so on our first visit. Fresh, well-dressed, clean people. And the staff seems happy and welcoming, to boot.  This is a place of contrasts, like a small mirror of China itself (and that’s of  course why we love it).

The food is mainly barbecue picked from dirty metallic platters in a cabinet, but the cabinet itself is surprisingly clean. Do not for the love of god pick the wrong platter for your stuff though, which is an easy mistake to make; there’s no telling exactly what kind of substance that lingers on some of them. If you’re not in the mood for barbecue, or want something more fullfilling as a side dish, the staff can do noodles and various other stuff at a stove. The noodles are actually not that bad, with a nice consistency and seasoning that gives a hearty feeling. But the barbecue, which has to be considered the main feature, fails to impress. It’s not bad in any way, just bog standard; only the chicken skewers (and maaaybe the beans and chillies) are something out of the ordinary, and there’s a lot of non-laowai-friendly, bony stuff. The main reason for Shípíng Shāokǎo’s surprising popularity is probably not the barbecue itself so much as the fact that it has a near monopoly on late night food supply in the neighborhood, and cold (ok, lukewarm) beer for four kuai.  Unless, of course, there’s something that draws chinese people and laotians alike to particularly shabby places, but let’s not speculate about that. All in all though, there’s nothing wrong with being standard; Yunnanese barbecue is definitely good, Shípíng Shāokǎo‘s just fail to rise above others. One could go here for the chicken skewers and the ridiculously cheap beer, but it’s really more like Apartment Restaurant No 1, which should be visited for the experience rather than the food. And Shípíng Shāokǎo really is an experience, a descent into shabbiness the likes of which any of us has yet to see on earth.

Only a collage could really convey the fullness of the horror, so we made one.

Zhào Xìng Yuán | 兆兴园

37 yong le lu 永乐路

Shabbiness: 2 laowais

Food: 5 laowais

Mood: Weirdly tranquil

Concept: Painfully small stools

We don’t have high expectations when we enter; the locale is just shabby enough to be mediocre, and the distinct lack of any kind of menu is always a headache for us laowais. But the ingredients lying about in plastic containers are surprisingly clean, though the meat does look a little off-putting. We ask for a menu and are pointed towards the few dishes pictured on posters on the wall; they don’t look too appetizing. So we do it the risky way, and point to stuff in the containers, then sit down at a table with miniscule wicker footstools and try to ignore the pain in our long, smooth legs. The tables are covered with the customary sheets of transparent plastic that always look completely horrible, yet in some unfathomable way are also an indication that this is to be considered a “quality” restaurant.

As it turns out, it is. The food is bordering on the fantastic. Though the beans are tasteless and way too oily, with a weird moisture that probably hails from a sewer somewhere,  the spring rolls with egg and mushrooms and some kind of sprouts are crisp and tasty, the mashed potatoes delicously seasoned and hearthy, and the meat is tender and laowai-friendly, no trace of fat or bones. It’s actually perfect, among the best meat we’ve had in Kunming; it comes in a savory sauce with a touch of ginger and just the right amount of oil. The rice takes its time to show up, but eventually arrives in a giant wooden bucket, carried in from an undisclosed location. And it’s warm.

The room itself has certainly seen better days, with bleached wall paintings whose like we haven’t seen since the Truck Stop in the Middle of Nowhere. The kitchen is definitely dirty, complete with shabby wall tiles that have almost fallen off. Yet this restaurant has a uniform and thought-out design, with fake mud brick walls, red lamps and paper cutouts hanging from the roof, and matching flowery covers on all the miniscule stools. As to why they insist on using such spartan seatings in a room that could easily have accommodated entire sofas, nobody knows.

When we arrive, Zhào Xìng Yuán is almost empty, but a few people soon arrives from the nearby Chuang Ku Art Compound, apparently aware that this place is great. After a while, most of the (enormous) staff sits down to eat, accompanied by strange moments of eerie silence where only the klicking of chopsticks is heard. It’s not exactly depressing, just…calm, and soon enough someone begans chatting in the usual, absurdly loud chinese style. Everything is back to normal. But we’re full of great food.

Apartment Restaurant No. 1

112 Jianshe lu 建设路 (ask the locals)

Shabbiness: 1 laowai

Food: 2 laowais

Mood: Awkward

Concept: Mama’s illegal cozy kitchen

Guest reviewers: 龙伟 and Sau

Have you ever been dining at restaurants that were not particular bad, but still left a sour feeling of anonymosity? Who are these people cooking my food, doing the dishes, choosing the music? Good food but an unpersonal experience. BOOORING! is what the Heaven in Hell-crew are shouting in unison. Look no further. We’ve found the perfect place for those of you who want to have an experience, rather than just have a meal.

This is where it happens.

Four floors up in an apartment building, just behind Jianshe Lu, mama will make you feel at home (well if your mom usually cooks Chinese!) with her buffet-style home-cooking ready with classic Chinese staples. In her apartment, that is. When restaurants and pubs in the west are trying hard to be like your “other livingroom”, this is the real deal. If you are lucky you get a seat in the sofa, in front of the huge flat screen (momma makes sure money keeps on rollin’ in) so you can watch the latest TV-series. The “restaurant”-part of her apartment is just a living room, but quite a lavish one that screams “new money”. It has a huge poster covering the wall (of a sandy beach paradise in some part of the world), a giant aquarium that looks squeaky clean and matching furniture in dark wood. And mama are into details too. We are especially impressed by the veil around the water dispenser and we wonder if it is the same one she wore to her wedding in the 80’s. It must also be said that this is one of the cleaner (chinese) apartments we’ve seen.

And what about mama’s food? Like in the school canteen of your childhood (or if you are studying in China at a university), the food is served by mama herself. You point, she heaves it in a take away box. The array of dishes stretches to about ten different and you can mix and match as you like until the box is full. Sometimes mama objects: “You can’t eat all that!”, and then it is up to you to convince her. As a local patron says; “she really looks in your box to see if it’s empty”, before said person quickly puts some leftovers in the trash bin.

We are trying the Yunnan-style mashed potatos, fried chicken, fried pork, cauliflower and the ever so popular, 西红柿炒鸡蛋, stir-fried tomatos with eggs. And while we don’t consider it bad in anyway (some of us stamps the chicken un-laowai-friendly with rich amounts of bone) we don’t feel impressed either. The food is nothing out of the ordinary; the mashed potato is mashed like it should, the cauliflower is crisp. This is once again a place you wouldn’t visit for the food; but for the mere experience of sitting in someones living room and having your meal. We agree that going here to watch tv and drinking beer (bring your own!) would be a nice second visit, occasionally chatting with mama and her family about the latest from the European Championships.

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.

Sìchuān Rén Fàndiàn | 四川仁饭店

? Su Jia Tang Nan Lu 苏家糖南路

Shabbiness:  3 laowais

Food: 2 laowais

Mood: Desolate

Concept: Sichuanese á la barracks

The level of expected shabbiness rises as we enter through the foyer, the blood in our veins pumping in excitement as we walk by a table with undone dishes, a clothesline with newly washed garments, a lonely fish swimming in a tank and some left-over deepfried youtiao from breakfast by the entrance. As we are greeted by one of the men playing cards with the rest of the staff, we are overblown by the restaurant’s interior. With clean tables (and some actually with real chairs!)and an attempt for decoration, we are disappointed. The promising entrance has had us fooled, the restaurant isn’t nearly as shabby as the entrance, although it comes with an unusually large amount of flies.

The fake green leaves covering the wall, the window curtains/shower curtains in all different colours covering the windows and the baijiu commercial on the walls makes us wonder what one is supposed to feel when exposed to this environment. Except for this, the restaurant looks sterile but quite tidy. This is clearly a place for eating, and nothing else. We can tell you what it makes us feel: Like we have been transported back to the 70’s and far up north to a mine workers canteen in northern Sweden. What is lacking is a soft-porn poster to take the place of the menu, plastered on the wall with some sexist comment written over it.

The service is sufficient and at our surprise, attentive. As the only guests, we quickly get served a pot of lukewarm tea. And this is where the problem lies. A giant bowl of rice lands at our table. It is once again cold and we all reminisce our last encounter with the chilly rice. The first dish, pork with cucumber, carrots and egg is also lukewarm. The second, baby pak choi with mushrooms and the third, Suan la tang (hot and sour soup) are ok. This could be due to the kitchen not being in the same “building”. While the former dishes are lacking a bit in flavor the latter soup makes up for it by providing a deep and intense flavor experience. The sourness is really sour and the hotness is hot. And the portion is LARGE. L. XL. Call it what you want but it is impossible to finish. The soup is the big winner. The pork in the first dish is quite tasteless and contains a large amount of fat – not laowai-friendly. The pak choi is crisp while the choice of mushroom, some kind of Shiitake, is boring.

Conclusions: Go here for the soup, skip the mushrooms and take your time to marvel at the hideous entrance. And don’t forget to bring mosquito repellent.

 

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!