Qián Yuán | 黔园

Wenhua Xiang 文化巷CIMG1139

Shabbiness: 3 laowais

Food: 4 laowais

Mood: Soul-crushing

Theme: Dead donkey deliciousness

After last time’s less-than-delicious dog meat we resolved to go back to something we knew were awesome, that is, dead donkeys. (Thanks to Food Ergo Love for tipping us off on this one). Qián Yuán over at Wenhua Xiang has a dish of this as their flagship of sorts, and originally it seemed to us most of their dishes except the donkey one were rather bland. As we continue to go through Qing Yuan’s menu, however, surprises appear, though mostly consisting of standard choices that are almost always good, like cold cucumber drenched in vinegar, garlic and lajiao, grandmother potatoes, Yunnan’s classical goat cheese, and everything you can possibly do with an eggplant. The dishes whose quality can normally be considered a benchmark for the skills of a chef, like 鱼香肉丝, Qián Yuán notably fails with, however, giving them a weird and bland taste. Whatever the case, the donkey meat with some cilantro and sichuan CIMG1129pepper really is fucking godawesome, and would be well worth it even if the rest of the menu consisted of food from Truck Stop in the Middle of Nowhere. There’s thus nowhere in hell the food rating can be lower than a 4, though there are some letdowns  here and there in the menu.

The shabbiness of Qing Yuan mostly consist of an overtly crammed and soul-crushingly impersonal feel, complete with horrible, thick plastic table sheets, white tableware (i.e, the most boring color imaginable), and a general lack of even a failed effort at decoration.  This is especially true in the upstairs area, that thanks to the bare, tiled walls feels vaguely like a public bathroom. The lighting is also to blame; white, bright and clinical in a way reminiscent of a demented dentist’s office.  The downstairs is significantly less depressive, partly due to always being more bustling, partly due to a nice and shabby internal window with foodstuffs on display.  But it has the same godawful light.

Is there any way it could be more depressive?
Is there any way it could be more depressing?

While not especially unclean, Qián Yuán nevertheless manages to be one of Kunming’s most bizarre eating experiences, due to the almost unbearably horrible atmosphere in stark contrast to the somewhat impressive food. The place is often packed to the gills, which we hope is because the locals know the food is 不错, and not because they in some perverted way actually appreciate the atmosphere. Whatever the case, Qián Yuán is yet another proof that good food in China is found in the most horrible environments.

Uncle Shu-Shu

CIMG1114

Lánzhōu Zhèngzōng Shǒulāmiàn 兰州正宗手拉面

In an alley off Wenlin Jie 文林街

Shabbiness: 4 laowais

Food: 4 laowais

Mood: Refugee camp

Concept: Late night drunk food

This Kunming institution in the alley next to the entrance of Wenlin Memento is one of two near-identical muslim places in the same decrepit building, both of which has the concept of almost never closing, serving late night post-drinking binge-food to the city’s bar crowd. Like all truly proper muslim places, they both serve shaokao (that is, barbecue), and have a nearly identical picture menu with classical staples like a plethora of hand-pulled noodles, noodle soups, fried rice, gaifan and similar chinese comfort food. The main difference between them is that one has recently renovated and is therefore less shabby than it used to be, which makes the other one, colloquially dubbed ‘Uncle Shu-Shu’, the obvious choice.  Also, Uncle Shu-Shu has better food, and a bigger outdoor seating, and nothing can really compare to the insane frustration of sitting down for dinner in the alley, and then suddenly having to move because some fucktard with a ridiculously huge car just has to squeeze the beast through this tiny alley even though it doesn’t lead anywhere. And upon asking him “why, god, why so big?”, he proudly answers: “大是好” (Big is good) .

CIMG1105The outdoor seating is probably the main feature of Uncle Shu-Shu, but you might also wanna experience the interior of the place, which manages to look improbably similar to a makeshift barack made out of sheet metal, fabric and old cardboard, combined with generous amounts of tin foil from the set of some B-sci-fi-movie. There’s dirty glass/plastic windows trying to wall of the kitchen areas, which is not strictly necessary because the area where they actually cook the food is hidden away from sight in a dark, remote corner man was not meant to know, saving you the horror of  actually having a clue what goes on in there. As one sits down on the broken plastic footstools one might briefly toy with the notion that the place is rather decent (it does have a cozy wooden roof), but then comes the sensation of the fat-encrusted tables and walls and the flies swarming around to their tiny hearts’ content. The sheer popularity of Uncle Shu-Shu does ensure a high customer turnover, and the thrash cans are of course there to be missed, so don’t ever put your bag on the floor here, ever. Yet, all of this, the roofs and corners stained black from decades of smoke, the cracks in the floor, the dirty, Harbin Beer-sponsored wallpapers about to peel off…while definitely a true, hardcore shabbyplace in its own right, it just can’t compare to Shípíng Shāokǎo.

CIMG1108The reason you’d visit Uncle Shu-Shu is mostly, however, because they make good food, and does so while being open at those really inconvenient dark hours when you’re truly 饿死了. The 炒饭, fried rice, is better here than at almost any other place, and the various fried noodles dishes are savory, tasty, just spicy enough, and almost guaranteed to make you full. The staff will happily make ridiculously spicy food for you if that’s your idea of awesome, and they somehow have an uncanny ability to make all the vegetables in their dishes feel weirdly fresh (probably a masterful illusion). The food here won’t win any awards, and there’s better places if you want gaifan (dishes on rice) and barbecue, but Uncle Shu-Shu will always deliver your noodle fix, and whether you want their great 丁丁炒面 (fried noodles chopped in tiny pieces so you can just gobble it up with a spoon, for when you’re too drunk for chopsticks) , their 新疆拉面 (cold Xinjiang noodles that you mix with a bowl of meat and vegetable matter) or the ubiquitous noodle soup, satisfaction is almost guaranteed.

One of the few places we've seen with the dreaded 'C'-rating, and proudly displaying it. (We've never ever seen any place, no matter how fancy, with an 'A', so we assume the minimum requirement for that is a really fat bribe).
One of the few places we’ve seen with the dreaded ‘C’-rating, and proudly displaying it. (We’ve never ever seen any place, no matter how fancy, with an ‘A’, so we assume the minimum requirement for that is a really fat bribe).

 

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.

Sìchuān Rén Fàndiàn | 四川仁饭店

? Su Jia Tang Nan Lu 苏家糖南路

Shabbiness:  3 laowais

Food: 2 laowais

Mood: Desolate

Concept: Sichuanese á la barracks

The level of expected shabbiness rises as we enter through the foyer, the blood in our veins pumping in excitement as we walk by a table with undone dishes, a clothesline with newly washed garments, a lonely fish swimming in a tank and some left-over deepfried youtiao from breakfast by the entrance. As we are greeted by one of the men playing cards with the rest of the staff, we are overblown by the restaurant’s interior. With clean tables (and some actually with real chairs!)and an attempt for decoration, we are disappointed. The promising entrance has had us fooled, the restaurant isn’t nearly as shabby as the entrance, although it comes with an unusually large amount of flies.

The fake green leaves covering the wall, the window curtains/shower curtains in all different colours covering the windows and the baijiu commercial on the walls makes us wonder what one is supposed to feel when exposed to this environment. Except for this, the restaurant looks sterile but quite tidy. This is clearly a place for eating, and nothing else. We can tell you what it makes us feel: Like we have been transported back to the 70’s and far up north to a mine workers canteen in northern Sweden. What is lacking is a soft-porn poster to take the place of the menu, plastered on the wall with some sexist comment written over it.

The service is sufficient and at our surprise, attentive. As the only guests, we quickly get served a pot of lukewarm tea. And this is where the problem lies. A giant bowl of rice lands at our table. It is once again cold and we all reminisce our last encounter with the chilly rice. The first dish, pork with cucumber, carrots and egg is also lukewarm. The second, baby pak choi with mushrooms and the third, Suan la tang (hot and sour soup) are ok. This could be due to the kitchen not being in the same “building”. While the former dishes are lacking a bit in flavor the latter soup makes up for it by providing a deep and intense flavor experience. The sourness is really sour and the hotness is hot. And the portion is LARGE. L. XL. Call it what you want but it is impossible to finish. The soup is the big winner. The pork in the first dish is quite tasteless and contains a large amount of fat – not laowai-friendly. The pak choi is crisp while the choice of mushroom, some kind of Shiitake, is boring.

Conclusions: Go here for the soup, skip the mushrooms and take your time to marvel at the hideous entrance. And don’t forget to bring mosquito repellent.

 

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!