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.