Hello Uncle Foreigner

food

Feb 28, 2017

The restaurant business is a tough game

Our corner of the sky goes through some changes

The new gang at New Friends
We’ve met a new gang at New Friends.
Four rivers, for rent
We were sad to stumble upon a Four Rivers that was “for rent.”
We met Dave at Old Friends
Emily, with our friend Dave, outside of Old Friends in busier times.

There’s a corner in Luzhou, behind the supermarket, just on the Changjiang river, where we’ve spent more time than anywhere else. Wrapped around it were two restaurants: Four Rivers and Old Friends. Over our five years here, we split our time between these two places, watching the people, talking about life, making important decisions. And now, they’re gone.

We’ve lost restaurants before. In fact, just opposite that very corner years earlier, that weird churrascaria we liked — with the fresh-brewed German-style beer — turned into a seafood restaurant that we didn’t particularly care for. But these two places were near and dear to our heart, and it was really sad to see them both go, especially just one after the other.

Four Rivers was not called that. But we called it that, after a confusing conversation with a young girl who stopped to chat with us there. It was a well-known place in Luzhou, she and many others told us. They faced out toward the river, and served traditional Sichuan food that was just slightly fancy; our favorites were the corn, and the pork rolls. They also did a great vermicelli and mustard greens soup. With just enough spice.

We went there for my first birthday in China. At that time, just four months in, it was the furthest afield we had ventured, and one of the first meals we had eaten on our own that wasn’t 串串. After we moved out to the countryside, it became a place where we frequently whiled away lazy afternoons post-big city grocery shop. And it was a major stop on our “Is it all still here?”-tour after going there and back again. The staff gave us a friendly 好久不见 that really meant a lot to us. But now, there are for rent signs in the window, and we never did get to try their crawdads.

On the inland side of the corner, we found Old Friends. Their deal was modern Sichuan food for the young and upwardly mobile. The first time we went there, we sat down for lunch and stayed through dinner. We came back again the next day for more. Beautiful spicy chicken wings, oxtail and tomato soup, silky mashed potatoes, pineapple fried rice, and this crudité platter with paper-thin tofu skins that was just fantastic. The chef, we came to learn, had worked in Germany, and was applying the western techniques that he had learned to local dishes.

Because we were there so often — twice a week and most holidays, at the height of our mania — we became friends with the owner, Kristy. She even drove us to the airport when we left for Lijiang. And she’s kept us updated on her goings on, which mitigates the sadness, somewhat. Since we’ve been gone, she placed Old Friends in the hands of her sister to go run a 串串 franchise. She even got a grant from the city government to do so. Oh, and she also runs a successful seafood restaurant that imports shellfish daily from Guangzhou. But Sister’s heart wasn’t in Old Friends, so they made the decision to close down a few months ago. We miss that oxtail soup. But we still have Kristy.

Change doesn’t always mean saying goodbye, however. This Chinese New Year’s Eve, with no plan for the fact that so many restaurants are closed that night (some things don’t change), we found ourselves wandering in the vicinity of our old corner. The lights were on, and people were bustling in and out of the spot where Old Friends used to be. It was a new 串串 place. They gutted the inside of all of Kristy’s hip decor, though they kept the long bench that ran along one side wall, a bench that knows our butts well. We stayed for dinner that night and came back for a lunch the next week. The new owners are wonderfully friendly, and the food is so good we can almost forgive them for not being our old hangout. Among ourselves, we’ve taken to referring to the place as New Friends.

Apr 29, 2015

Taking it easy further north

The relaxed, international flavor of Đà Lat

Peter, eating "bird" at Chu Quán.
Peter, eating “bird” at Korean-Vietnamese BBQ place Chu Quán.
Delicious tom yam soup and dill chicken at Góc Hà Thành.
It was a bit touristy, but we had delicious tom yam and dill chicken at Góc Hà Thành.

In contrast to Phạm Ngũ Lão, Đà Lạt’s backpacker scene was much more relaxed and integrated with the city around it. There was still a small neighborhood glutted with western bars, hostels, and restaurants — down Trương Công Định street, if you’re looking — but the gravity of the area was not so strong. We kind of spent our time in the city traversing between International World and Localville. We watched live one night — in a bar full of Russians — as CNN reacted to Jon Stewart’s departure from “The Daily Show.” But we also successfully stumbled through the all-Vietnamese menu at an up-and-coming BBQ joint.

Given Đà Lạt’s size — small — we did wander down Trương Công Định at some point just about every day. And our usual destination was The Hangout, a bar billed as the homebase of the local Easy Riders. In actuality, its clientele consists mostly of the enthusiastic, but inexpert young travelers who’d spent the day touring the countryside with the motorbike guides; their ripped up legs told the story of a lot of falling down. But it was a chill place for a beer or two. Decidedly less shady than the backpacker bars of HCMC.

Another regular stop, a few streets over, was the Liên Hoa Bakery. They offered a wide range of French-style pastries. Fruit tarts, fresh donuts, croissants, cookies, cakes … I had to limit myself to two per day. Mostly because I wanted to save some room for the bakery’s made-to-order bánh mì. Peter would go with paté and vegetables, while my favorite was the BBQ pork. They buttered their bread as well, which was a fantastic touch. Guys, I just love sandwiches.

But we found a lot of good meals, all around town. On the suggestion of our hostel owners, we had lunch one afternoon at Vinh Loi, a folding table and plastic chairs kind of place that specializes in doing the basics well. Back on Trương Công Định, we had dinner at Góc Hà Thành, a restaurant that trumpeted its Lonely Planet endorsement on a large banner out front. Locals do not come here anymore, if they ever did. But the food was really good. Peter and I shared a dill lemon chicken dish and a tom yam shrimp soup — which is actually a Thai dish, but whatever. It was super sweet and delicious.

Our favorite meal — one so nice, we ate it twice — was at Chu Quán, the aforementioned BBQ establishment. The owner, we read, was going for a Korean-Vietnamese fusion, and I’ll tell you, it worked for us. The showstopper there was the Bò Sặc, a spicy beef dish cooked on a hot stone at the table. Each time a party ordered one, the whole room filled with choking, acrid smoke. (In a fun way!) That was a little too intense for us, though, so we went with a dish our waiter translated into English as “bird.” The table next to us had one, and it looked good.

“Bird” is probably squab, and it was served in a caramelized spice rub. We cut it up ourselves with large kitchen shears, which was a little discomfiting. The meat was tender for such a little guy, but that spice really packed a punch. The dish came with soy and chili dipping sauces, and side of mint and cucumber as a palate refresher. “Every bite has a strategy,” Peter said.

Rounding out the meal was a noodle and vegetable dish that was pretty good, but was definitely overshadowed by “bird,” and some just-perfect French fries, Vietnamese style, with an orange chili sauce and mayonnaise. I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention our starter: a black sesame rice cake with green chili sauce. Maybe one of Peter’s favorite discoveries of the whole trip. (Can you guess what mine was? I’ll give you a hint: It starts with bánh and ends with mì.)

We were truly sad to leave Đà Lạt. It’s just a really friendly, charming place. On our last full day, another Easy Rider chatted us up. When we told him that we were leaving, he joked-not-joked that a motorbike ride back down to Saigon would be way more fun that flying. He was probably right, but “not with my back,” Peter said. The Easy Rider laughed, mounted his bike, and zoomed off down the road.

Apr 5, 2015

Adventuring in Vietnam

Moments good, bad, and delicious

The motorbikes of Vietnam are plentiful and fast
Backpacker street in SaigonSaigon from the rooftop
Views of Saigon’s backpacker area from above and below.

Our time in Vietnam was amazing. Exhilarating, confusing, overwhelming, rich and amazing. We visited two cities in a little under two weeks (plus a little bit of countryside), and on the back of our Chinese travel experience, we may have been a little cocky. The ferocity of the tourist-facing sales people was particularly unsettling, and we learned some expensive lessons. But we also met some wonderful people, ate some fantastic food, and had some awesome experiences. Let us take you through some of the moments, people and places that made our trip.

For reference, we started out in Ho Chi Mihh City, went north to the city of Đà Lạt for a few days, fell in love with Đà Lạt and stayed a few days more, and then returned to HCMC to finish out the trip. Also, Ho Chi Minh City is still interchangeably referred to as Saigon.


Spring rolls and noodle soups

Fried spring rolls
Hey, everyone! Serve everything with fresh mint and chili sauce, ok?

We never had a day that was typical, but this one afternoon is representative of our experiences in Vietnam so here’s where I’ll start: On a tip from a local HCMC dining website, we were up in the northern district of Phú Nhuận looking for some Vietnamese tapas. We would never find those tapas; the Saigon restaurant scene moves quickly and this was not the first time we were on the hunt for something that was long gone. The neighbors let us know with a particular Vietnamese gesture, waggling their upturned palm from side to side as if unscrewing a lightbulb: “Nope, sorry.”

But, no matter. We were stranded by the beautiful Nhiêu Lộc canal, the sky was blue and the sun was dappling through the trees. You couldn’t ask for more on a warm February afternoon. There was a cafe with a squat set of table and chairs facing the water, and we made our own tapas.

Because we were out of the main tourist area, the menu was only in Vietnamese. I had cribbed a list of dishes from Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen’s website, but functionally that meant I could only say, “well, this is something with chicken, and that’s probably pork.” So I pointed at a picture of spring rolls, and the die was cast.

We had spring rolls a lot on our trip. We had them with soft shell crab at Chill, a swank bar at the top of one of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest buildings. We had crap ones at a Western dive in the heart of HCMC’s backpacker district. We even had roll-your-ownies at a small establishment in Đà Lạt. (More on those in a future entry.)

Spring rolls are such a basic idea of what Vietnamese food is … like, everyone knows a spring roll. But they’re such a good crystallization of what makes the cuisine so special.

These particular rolls were simple and fried, with a savory pork mixture inside. You wrapped your roll in a mint leaf and then dipped it in two chili sauces — one slightly sweet and one that was a pure, clear spicy wallop. The layered flavored each took their turn in your mouth, none too overpowering and all equally delightful. Each individual component is so simple and fresh, but they combine into a complex and amazing taste experience.

As we ate, we watched a parade of motorbike commuters zip down Trường Sa street, carrying families, couches, fridges, cases of beer, TVs. The oft cited statistic is that HCMC has 9 million residents and 3.5 million motorbikes. It truly is a sight to see. On foot, grandparents and babies, and dogs and their walkers took in the same panorama that we were enjoying. It was both frantic and peaceful, relaxing and stimulating.

At another cafe a few doors down, the view was the same, but the food was something new! All we asked for was “a snack” — one of the workers spoke a little English — and what we got was a confection of spicy beef floss. Imagine a Twizzler made out of steak, and that you love it. It’s something we never would have ordered on our own, but it was really, really good. It had that spicy-sweet-tangy addictive quality of a good barbecue sauce. We sat and chewed and sipped our Heinekens. More bikes, carrying more improbably large loads, whizzed by.

Peter eating at a roadside cafe
When you’re eating on the street, motorbike parking is never far away.

Since our dinner plan no longer existed, after this we decided to take a wander. Something we both really enjoyed about Saigon was its walk-ability. Unlike a typical Chinese city with its monstrous, sprawling ring roads and skyscrapers, Saigon is divided into human-sized neighborhoods each with a vibrant local street life. Buildings are narrow, short, and brightly colored; cute boutiques are packed in next to ramshackle mom-and-pops; and food/coffee carts with plastic stools and tiny tables spill out all over the street and sidewalks (where they exist). There are, too, your Startbucks and KFCs — Ho Chi Minh City is a growing, cosmopolitan entity on the world scene. But there are also beautifully landscaped public parks every few blocks.

At a busy open street market, we stopped for some phở. If you know about Vietnamese food, you know about phở — a meaty noodle soup with fresh leafy vegetables. And as with spring rolls, noodle soups were a staple of our trip. (As this blogger grouchily explains, to say phở is like bún bò is as if “someone described fettuccine alfredo as ‘like spaghetti’.” But as is my habit, I’m going to group them all together anyway.) Something I’ve figured out about street food is that, despite its humble surroundings, it is crazy complex. In the case of the soups, the broth needs to be boiled for hours and spiced just so. To get the meat the right flavor and texture takes a whole day. And you’ve got a dozen ingredients to chop and prepare just to be a garnish. This all results in a dish that costs approximately 50¢. It’s work that only makes sense to do if you’re serving hundreds.

But I’m glad someone does it. The noodle soups we ate were usually found at market stalls. There’s a noodle and there’s a meat. The broth is clear and packed with flavor. To this, you can add vinegar, fresh-squeezed lime, and chilies to taste. It’s served with a plate including fresh cabbage, coriander, mint, and anise leaves. When you throw this into your steaming broth, the leaves wilt beautifully and start infusing the whole dish with bright flavor. Especially the anise. I do not hesitate to say that this is the best “simple” street food on the planet.

And that’s how it was done. All afternoon, we were kind of lost but not really. There was a plan and it failed. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? If we knew exactly what was going to happen every moment, there wouldn’t really be a point in leaving the hotel room. And so, we amble on …

Saigon from above, again

Feb 2, 2015

Video: Eating Barbecue with Dave in Naxi

You’ve got to try the pig intestine

Dave lives in Naxi, a suburb about 20 minutes south of Luzhou. He works construction for money, but he is a dance teacher for fulfillment. When we first met him — he approached us at a restaurant to practice his English — we discovered that he had known and befriended the Double Alex! Their school is close to where Dave lives. Sadly, they themselves are no longer around. (Their school, as it turned out, was not licensed to have foreign teachers.)

But life must go on. Now Dave is our friend, and he recently took us to a Naxi barbecue place that he and the Alexs enjoyed. It was delicious. And I had my first taste of Sichuan specialty, pig intestine!

Dec 22, 2014

Snaps: Should your potatoes taste like bacon?

Yes. Yes they should taste like bacon.

Potatoes and bacon

We’re particular eaters with limited vocabulary, so we’ve established a fairly consistent routine for dinner. At Riverside Hot Pot we get the pork meatballs, at Pork Rib we get the pork rib, and at Beef Hot Pot we get the Dragon Boat. We add to this from time to time, when we’re feeling adventurous or when I get some new vocabulary. And occasionally, our restaurant owner buddies make some suggestions.

The woman who runs Around the Corner restaurant in Tai’an knows us pretty well, and the other night she gestured toward another table and said something about potatoes. We went for it, and the result? Homemade potato chips fried with cured pork. We have a new winner!

Nov 1, 2014

Video: A Good Night in Tai’an

Dinner in our favorite countryside neighborhood

A good night in Tai’an from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

For dinner most nights, rather than go into Luzhou city, we hang out in nearby Tai’an. And it’s always a good night.

Oct 4, 2014

September’s flavor of the month

It’s pork

Pork rib at the Kung Fu Bar

In addition to gallivanting around the north this summer, we’ve also made the most of our renewed time in Luzhou by exploring locally. And our latest gem, we found just as school was starting last month.

蜀南人家 is a restaurant decked out in a red lantern, old timey Chinese style — similar to Chinese Bar. “Kung Fu restaurants,” our friend Andrea calls them, which seems to be the new trendy thing. With waiters dressed up in a simple laborer’s costume, woven baskets on the walls and earthenware jugs full of preserved foods, there’s a definite theme element to the presentation. We think it’s fun, and these restaurants are certainly popular among the people of Luzhou. Is there an element of cheese to it? We don’t know. But, our grandparents would find this all very familiar, Maybell told us.

While Chinese Bar’s food is nothing special, 蜀南人家’s is phenomenal. Our first night there, our server advised us that the pork rib rack was the house specialty, so of course we had to get it. And it came out: an actual shovel full of spice-smothered, Flintstones-big arc of meat so tender that we could pick it apart with our chopsticks. We raved to each other as we ate, and celebrated Peter’s now fully carnivorous lifestyle.

And then, we went back five times in four weeks.

Aug 28, 2014

Yak Meat: The King in the North

The meals we loved

Dried yak meat hanging on the high street
There is yak meat everywhere, all over Songpan.
Our barley bread of the gods
Out in Tibetan country, we enjoyed the food of the gods.
At some crazy barbecue
Confusing BBQ in Songpan is very tasty.
Dinner at Emma's Kitchen
Emma’s Kitchen in Songpan is a hub for visiting backpackers who want some hearty fare.
Have a chicken
We didn’t eat the head, but the rest our riverside chicken was just fantastic.
Tibetan food at Abu Luzi
We had a Tibetan-style feast at Jiuzhagou’s Abu Luzi restaurant.

When we took off northward, we really weren’t sure what to expect. We knew there would be mountains and nature — but would there be ATMs? We had an inkling that the area was influenced by Tibetan culture, but what does that mean? And what’s there to eat around here?

To answer our last question first: yak. There would be yak, everywhere. Live yak grazing all over the countryside; We spotted our first herd directly outside the airport. And in town: yak jerky, cured yak, yak dumplings, as well as all organs from tongue to testicles.

It’s not bad. Yak is kind of gamey, with just a little bit of sweetness. The winner for us was the cured yak, which was nice and smokey and paired well with the crusty Tibetan barley bread that was all over the place in Songpan. (We ate two loaves of the stuff in a little more than a week.) It makes a good picnic out in the fresh air. Though it’s less exciting sitting in the hotel room.

Yak meat and barley products, we learned, are staples of the Tibetan diet. And that’s relevant because Songpan and Jiuzhaigou and environs, while part of Sichuan Province, also comprise the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, which is home to a large population of ethnic Tibetans. You can see this in the dress of the local people, the architecture, the strong Buddhist presence, and of course the food. But those TIbetans are not alone; the Qiang minority and the Muslim Hui people are also a strong presence, each contributing their own culture to the mix.

We tried to find some Muslim hot pot in Songpan, a rumored area specialty, but ended up at a confusing BBQ restaurant. In retrospect, at issue was some mild altitude sickness (Songpan is at almost 2,900 m above sea level), but they did give us a hot pot menu only to take it away when I tried to order from it. Instead, their thing was veggie and meat skewers that you cooked over a fire pit sunk into the table. Once we got the hang of it, it was delicious and fun. Although, I don’t think they were even Muslim at all, because they also served us beer. But I swear that sign out front said halal hot pot.

We had a different confusing-but-delicious BBQ experience in Jiuzhaigou. (Maybe that is the area specialty.) This time, we were looking for a Tibetan restaurant that had changed addresses since our 2011 guidebook had been published. We stopped to puzzle it out and inadvertently opened ourselves to the most persuasive waiter in the world. To be fair, he first tried to help us get directions, but when it became clear we weren’t committed to moving on, he implored us to stay and have a spit-roasted chicken. The spit was out front of his restaurant, and those chickens did look delicious. I couldn’t resist his command, and soon we found ourselves sitting riverside, eating a succulent, crispy skinned, with just the right amount of spice chicken. We gobbled it off the bone, and went back for seconds two days later.

But we did eventually make it to our Tibetan restaurant, and it was worth all the bumbling. Abu Luzi was kind of an upscale version of our yak and barley bread picnic from the beginning of our trip. The food was simple but extraordinary. We had the Grassland Harvest, a barley soup with fresh vegetables; barley potatoes, which had a nice onion-y kick; and the yak and carrot parcel, a flaky pastry filled with seasoned carrots and the most tender and savory yak meat. We came into this trip without a really clear idea of what Tibetan food would be, and it was a real pleasure to find out. If we had had more days (and more money), we would have returned here, too.

As for ATMs? There are Chinese banks everywhere. No problem for us. (Though if you need to access foreign currency, check with your local institution.)

Jul 30, 2014

In the kitchen with Jessi

Our first class is on their way

The girls in our kitchen
From left to right: Yi, Meichen and Jessi, preparing a feast in our kitchen.
Jessi made a fantastic Sichuan-style dinner
Our meal of pumpkin soup, egg and scallion, and mildly spicy pork with peppers.
Hanging out with the kidsHave some dumplings
Left: This was our first time entertaining so many people at the new apartment; we had to borrow dishes from next door. Right: Jessi and the mountain of dumplings we made.

“I think students are closer to there teachers here in China than they are in America,” I said.

Jessi agreed. It’s because they spend more time together, she told me, they’re more like family. She was, at the time, mincing up some pork for the dumplings she was making me. I was nominally helping, cleaning the chives, but really the bulk of the work fell on her.

Jessi had been my student in my first year of teaching. (She’s namechecked in this essay.) Overwhelmed by our new lives that year, Peter and I didn’t make too many real connections with our students, but Jessi and a few of her friends were wonderful exceptions. We’ve kept in loose touch since then, and this summer she’s come over a few times to cook for us — she’s quite accomplished at Sichuan cuisine.

Our first meal together was an absolute feast, and she brought with her Kevin, Meichen and Yi. It was great catching up with the kids. Kevin, whom we used to refer to as the Crane, was back from his training year in Singapore and is now pretty fluent in English. He starts university in Singapore in the fall, and we can tell he’s having an amazing adventure abroad. Meichen, one of Peter’s top students from his top class, has not waited to start her advanced education — she’s already taken an English course from online university Coursera. Meichen and Kevin talked books and translation with Peter for much of the evening. Yi is a new friend, and very shy — though she seemed to have fun. She did tell me that I taught her mother when I did that course at the local teacher’s college!

Jessi will be staying in Luzhou for school, attending the city’s Medical College. During one of our very first after-class chats she told me that she wanted to be a doctor, so I’m fantastically happy for her. Likewise, I’m happy for myself, because if she stays nearby, she can come over and make me more delicious dumplings.

Dec 2, 2013

A new couple enters the mix

Snow and Jeff host us for an amazing lunch

Jeff and Snow with all their friends

Snow is a native Luzhou-ite who is the director of the foreign languages department at Sichuan Foreign Language high school. Jeff, her husband, is an Australian who taught ESL at the school about a decade ago. They recently returned from a stint teaching English in Mozambique (Snow was on sabbatical), and looking for expat friends, they got in touch with us through our boss Linda. A lunch invitation was issued; “Snow loves to host parties,” Jeff told us.

Jeff and Snow
Jeff and Snow host a mean banquet

And he was not underselling. Expecting a modest bite of noodles or something, we were instead presented with an out-and-out midday banquet with a half-dozen of Jeff and Snow’s other friends. There was the writer for the local newspaper, a couple from Chengdu who own a hair salon in here in town, a woman from the Luzhou Planning Museum, a few teachers recently returned from a trip to Thailand, and, last but not least, a chef who catered the entire affair who was about to leave China for a job in New Zealand.

Most of our friends are pretty young, so it was interesting to hang out with a crowd of established locals with such an international outlook. It’s actually really expensive for the average Chinese person to get a travel visa to America, but that just means that these people set their sights elsewhere. Luzhou may be a small town, but that afternoon was spent excitingly with people from a small world.