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.
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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?

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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.

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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.

Lǎo Déhóng | 老德宏

In an alley in the neighborhood called Mayuan 麻园

Shabbiness: 4 laowais

Food: 5 laowais

Mood: Weirdly mediterranean

Concept: Trial by fire

Tucked away in the Hongkong:esque alleys off Laowo bar is this neighborhood hangout, complete with cheap booze and an outdoor seating shaded not only by adjacent concrete colossuses, but also plastic vines. It quickly dawns on us that this is a Dai place, and having gone here the first time with non-laowai, who promptly ordered for example a soup with inedible, fat chunks of ox skin, we’re surprised to discover that the menu is actually quite possible to interpret, even if your hanzi-fu is somewhat lacking.  This will be the story of the 鬼火怒 and  情人泪, two dishes notable for their evocative names and the fundamental weirdness of their composition. Being a little bit chicken after having ordered these two dishes (the first one, Guihuo nu ,means something like ‘Ghostfire fury’, the second, Qingren lei, ‘Lover’s tears’), we opt for some standard choices to complete the dinner, 白菜 and  腌菜肉丝; the first of these being fried cabbage, the second sliced meat with a kind of sour, pickled vegetable, that are pretty much standard fare in Yunnan.  It turns out that, in Lǎo Déhóng, , they’re not that special, and going for something else (like the godawesome mashed potatoes) is probably a better idea. Qingren lei is mostly just…weird; cold, sliced red onion with lemon and an unholy shitload of coriander. It’s not for everybody, though it certainly looks very appetizing. .

The Ghostfire fury, though..we stand in awe before the sadistic mind that conceived it.

The lover’s tears

Let’s get something straight: we like 辣椒, as in, chili. We like it a lot. One of us routinely eats the hottest Jalfrezis swedish indian restaurants have to offer, and subsequently goes around suffering from burns in his mouth all day. That’s just how viking we are. But this dish is insane, like something freshly crawled out of a smoldering pit in the buddhist hells. It consists of some kind of mashed, supernaturally strong chili, all cold, mixed with an ungodly amount of coriander, put  on a plate. That’s it. That’s this dish. We want to love it, but, well…no. Some meat or something to like soak in and savour the absurd spiciness could have saved it, but as it stands, ‘Ghostfire fury’ tastes like genocide.

With that remarkable achievement in mind, there can only be one rating for Lǎo dé hóngs food; a great one. While the menu is somewhat hit-or-miss, there are hidden gems all over it (there’s many nice fish dishes, and as previously stated, the mashed potatoes are to die for), and weird stuff in abundance, with the guihuo nu as some kind of twisted golden star. This is not the place to take your parents, but maybe hardcore backpackers who wants a challenge, or insane gourmets, and of course all lovers of Dai food. But it is a shabbyplace, to be sure, and this is reflected in the pricing; the beer costs like nothing, and we assume the liquor, too.

Ghostfire fury

As for the shabbiness, the outdoor seating is quite cozy, if spartan, and there are some awesome metallic footstools with huge gaping holes where your  ass is supposed to be. Somewhere close by is a live chicken making sounds, but we can’t seem to locate it, and the food has to be ordered and picked up from a opening in the back, where the kitchen is located in some kind of weird attachment to the main building, extremely cramped. If you’d rather sit inside, there’s a claustrofobic interior with a corner covered in used newspapers and piles of random 东西, dirty walls and weird cans with something pickled inside, looking suspiciously like olives. A whole has been carved out in the wall, covered on all sides by a shelf, so that you can peek into the kitchen. The laoban’s kid is frequently hanging arouund doing homework or playing with toys lying about, and his dad frequently gets angry at him and screams and curses, creating an extremely awkward atmosphere. To the guys defense, , he is also eager to offer laowai customers cigarettes and baijiu, though.

It seems somebody has almost tried to give this place a somewhat mediterranean feel, but the end result is so random it just adds to the fundamental shabbiness, and Lǎo dé hóng ha the added benefit of being located in one of Kunming’s shabbiest neighborhoods, where every street is more or less a must-see. The shabbiness rating, accordingly, is also quite high.

Also, say hello to our new photographer, and behold the awesomeness that is the new picture quality.

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.

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…

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.

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.