December 31, 2008

Guijie - Not just for hotpot

Guijie on a chilly night is one of the quintessential Beijing experiences. To the untrained eye the neon lights will appear garish, but to those in the know they give a warm, at-home feeling. And there's something satisfying about walking along the street trying to choose a restaurant, deciding only after a judicious weighing of options, perhaps amongst a group of friends, or sometimes impulsively going into the first joint that piques your whimsy ("Hey, we've never been here before!"). Unlike at Houhai, even the touts aren't enough to spoil a stroll along Guijie, and if anything, they add to the atmosphere.

We normally choose one of the many hotpot options on Guijie, but the week before had tried, and been disappointed by, the Dongzhimen location of Huajia Yiyuan (花家怡园), a restaurant serving "contemporary Chinese cuisine", popular among locals and expats alike. Huajia Yiyuan's
wannabe chic design, shabby furniture, and exceedingly mediocre food left me feeling like the emperor has no clothes. Perhaps the original courtyard location on Guijie proper is better, but personally I'd rather spend my money at any of the Da Dong restaurants.

Trying to put the previous week's disappointment behind us, and wanting to break the hotpot routine, we set out on the south side of the street. The first place of interest we came to was a gift-shop type store selling local delicacies from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. For readers who have been to either of the Mongolias and picked up a taste for milk tea with butter, horse-milk alcohol, or beef jerky (牛肉干), then this is the place to stock up. We got a small bag of the latter and a Yanjing to wash it down with.

Next we went to Zaizai Heiya (仔仔黑鸭), a store specializing in duck and duck offal. These types of stores are usually no more than small windows selling to passerby, but this store had some flair, and even a celebrity following.

Zaizai Heiya sells whole ducks and duck wings, along with duck necks, gizzards, feet, livers, stomach, heads and tongues. We opted for the spicy duck tongues (鸭舌). Duck tongues may gross out some readers, but I didn't choose them for their shock value (I'll leave that to the pros over at Weird Meat). Duck tongues, which are brined, are simply delicious. Hangzhou cuisine has a very lightly flavored version, but these Wuhan style spicy duck tongues were even better. Duck tongues are surprisingly meaty, and unlike duck or chicken feet are relatively easy to eat, with only a small core of soft cartilage putting up token resistance.

Having whet our appetite, we headed across the street to Shougan Mianguan (手擀面馆) for hearty hand-pulled noodles, and the best ganbian siji dou (干煸四季豆) I've ever tasted.