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.

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!

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.