Cơm gà Bà Buội

22 Phan Chu Trinh St, Hoi An

The charming exterior. What horrors await inside?
The charming exterior. What horrors await inside?

Shabbiness: 3 laowais

Food: 5 laowais

Mood: Vaguely colonial

Theme: Venerable shabbyplace

We’reeee baaaack! (Though only for some vietnamese special features, but still). This time we visited a famous restaurant in Hoi An, who’ve apparently been around since the 50s. That’s older and more famous (except for Tim Ho Wan) than any shabbyplace we ever visited before, so we enter with somewhat mixed expectations. The facade, like all of Hoi An, is painted in a pleasant yellow hue and looks generally, generically pretty in a somewhat bucolic fashion. Can this really be what it’s purported to be, a shabbyplace?

Yes it can! Asia always delivers.
The cramped (‘cozy’) interior space sports some fancy hardwood pillars and terraces, but the grease-stained and bleached mint-green walls and hard concrete floor offsets any comforting feelings this might engender. Unless you’re like us, that is; now, we’re giddy with excitement. The color scheme and the peeling paint creates a vaguely Caribbean colonial atmosphere. An open kitchen, cold metallic tables, plastic footstols, bleached photographs and random plastic sheets with floral patterns completes the wonderful picture, though a bonus mention goes to the mystery door with a blue plastic curtain, framed by walls where the paint have peeled of and exposed the grey concrete underneath. What horrors lurk behind? Could it be the only thing worse than an Asian shabbyplace; an Asian bathroom?


We don’t dwell on this, however, but eagerly proceed to the food. Like in a hundred thousand times more fancy (but less cozy) places in Europe, there’s one single dish. In this case; Chicken rice. One should be able to assume they’ve mastered it by now, because we do have fond memories of similar shabbyplaces, surprisingly excellent, back in Kunming. Not taking anything for granted however, because Asia is the continent of randomness and weirdness, we take a bite. And two. And three.


There’s tender, tasty chicken pieces on top of masterfully steamed rice, decorated with onion slices and a cornucopia of herbs, and accompanied by some bowls of a really, really amazing broth. Like most good vietnamese food, there’s an odd feeling of freshness and crispness to it, despite it’s ramshackle surroundings. Though the portions could have been bigger, of course it’s dirt cheap, and we leave satisfied (and mystified that we haven’t gotten stomach sick yet). Once again we’ve proven our case! The best food is found in the shabbiest places, in China as well as in Vietnam.

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

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).

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.

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.