The Shabbyplace with a Michelin Star

The crowd outside.
The crowd outside.

Tim Ho Wan
Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Hongkong (has since moved).

Shabbiness: 1 laowai

Food: 5 laowais

Mood: Swedish kebab joint

Concept: Queue from hell

Sooner or later, we were of course bound to end up here. As we approach, we see an intimidating line of laowai, mainlanders and locals, and we’re told we’ll need to wait for two hours for a table. We resolve to do so, as this just has to be experienced. Here’s why:

CIMG8951

Tim Ho Wan is supposedly the world’s cheapest Michelin starred-cubbyhole, at last back in 2010, and that was of course something we’d have to do a bonus feature about: how shabby could this possibly be?

CIMG8950Not that shabby, is the answer, but it’s still very far from fancy-pants fusion molecular cuisine concept restaurants with snobbish dress codes (that’s another Michelin starred place in Hong Kong). The interior design in Tim Ho Wan, or rather the lack of it, do manage to be somewhat reminiscent of  swedish budget pizzerias and kebab joints, and this is indeed an achievement considering this restaurant is basically world famous and has a two hour waiting line.  There’s the classically tasteless plastic fake wooden walls, posters with pointless and unappealing pictures of random food that they probably don’t serve, and a cramped kitchen complete with dirty, moist windows and ancient smoke stains forming black patches in the roof.  It”s nowhere near mainland levels of shabbiness, but it does give off a cramped, impersonal and slightly decrepit feel that wouldn’t be out of place in the very shabbiest (comparatively speaking) swedish fast food joints.

CIMG8938The food, like most cantonese fair, looks extremely unappealing, like random grey, yellow and orange blotches of sticky goo and slimy white sheets. The actual taste, however, is more like how we assume divine nectar might taste in the garden of paradise. Okay, slight exaggeration maybe, but it is, as the chinese would say, 不错; not bad. At all. By any stretch of the imagination.

Fucking awesome.

The yellow:ish watery rice-pudding thing is interesting, but lacks a bit of zeist, it’d benefit from some more sugar or salt we feel. The large selection of various random steamed dough and meat buns are increasingly good as we work through it, with tasty soy, great consistency, savory  feel; there’s something interesting going on in our mouths with every bite. The sticky rice is absoutely amazing,  with nice texture and perfect temperature, the xiao long bao is a dream for anybody who enjoys their slimy dumplings (some of us doesn’t, but still has to confess the filling is semi-divine).

CIMG8941
The amazing glaced pork bread buns.

The highlight is arguably a kind of (pardon us for not knowing the names of cantonese food) dough buns stuffed with fine pork in sweet glace, that are such a taste sensation that we’d have to spend two pages of word spam trying to find the right way to describe it.

In summary, Tim Ho Wan is a great food adventure in an impersonal and basic setting, the only thing really missing for it to be a true chinese shabbiness experience is the lack of miniscule footstools, screaming babies and badly edited Maoist propaganda posters. Like much of Hong Kong, it feels a little bit more western, and therefore less true. Yet, the food here is as amazingly cheap as it is good, worth both the long wait and a detour, deserving it’s Michelin star (though we know a few mainland eateries that would  as well, if it came down to food quality only, as it really should).

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).

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.

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.

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.