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.

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.

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!