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.

Wtf?
Wtf?

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’.

CIMG1155
The master at work

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.

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.