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.

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:


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).

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).