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.

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.


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’.

The master at work

Hóng Jī Shānzhuāng | 鸿吉山庄

Xishan Maomaoqing Ma’an Shancun


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…

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.

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.

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.