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.
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.