Hello Uncle Foreigner

food

Dec 4, 2012

Chongqing: Cactus Tex-Mex

Running for a border

Tex-Mex-ish

Our quarry at the Hongya Dong Center? Tacos! The ninth-floor Cactus Tex-Mex Bar & Grill was touted (by some online randos) as the best Mexican food in Chongqing, and we just can’t turn down an opportunity for Mexican.

On the hunt for Mexican food in China

Stepping into Cactus felt just like walking into an American sports bar, down to NFL on FOX on all the big screen TVs. Their menu was a little all over the place (and somewhat pricey, but that’s just a fact of western food in China). It offered all your classic Tex-Mex faves, but also pizza, fried mozzarella, hamburgers, etc., and also French and German specialties. It was kind of like Chili’s married Applebee’s and they went on an around-the world-honeymoon.

The drink menu was equally hefty, but we had to go for your basic margaritas to compliment our basic tacos. It was nothing fancy, but they did their job. There was a sort of Old El Paso-canned taste to the meal, but what do you want? You’re in China.

I hate sports bars in America, and — surprise! — it turns out I don’t love them in China, either. But the bar wasn’t very crowded, which to me is appealing. The best tacos in China so far, they are not. (That honor is still held by the Pug in Chengdu.) But, if you find yourself needing Mexican food in Chongqing, as we did, Cactus will fit the bill.

Dec 3, 2012

Chongqing: Indian Restaurant

A surprise find!

Indian food in ChongqingWe just looked up, and there it was

Our first night in, we decided to wander for dinner. Chongqing rivals Sichuan as home of the hot pot, and we were pretty sure that we could find a good one just by flinging ourselves at the city.

But, instead, we found this Indian Restaurant.

We were led upstairs by a cute young woman in her 20s. She wore hipster black rimmed glasses and a chic short haircut, and she was kind of sheepish about her English, although she spoke well enough. “不客气 is ‘Not at all’, in English?” she verified with us, and then proudly and carefully used it throughout the meal to answer our 谢谢s [thank yous].

Peter and I split some hearty vegetable samosas and a perfect garlic naan. My chicken with cashew sauce was sweet and creamy with white chunks of breast meat, while Peter’s potato and cauliflower curry was just the right amount of spicy. The sauces tasted premade — it kind of reminded me of Progresso soup — but as far as Chinese Indian food goes, it was a pretty good meal.

Nov 22, 2012

Tofu soup and spelling contests

And shampoo jeans

Alex introduced us to tofu soup

During the National Day holiday, we made a date to meet up with our pal Alex. He was preparing for a big speech competition that was to be held in the following month, and he had asked for our help. Of course, lunch was part of the deal as well.

He took us up a windy road to a set up that looked a lot like our 串串, with burners set into the middle of tables and a bubbling pot on top. But, in fact, it was something totally different: A tofu soup!

(Now Peter and I both enjoyed tofu in the states, but coming to China we’ve realized that the way tofu is served in the US is often the most totally boring way you could do it. No wonder no one likes it. Here in China, tofu is treated as a real food and seasoned and cooked with accordingly. So when you read tofu soup, don’t think “Ugh,” think “Yum!”)

The soup was a live bubbling broth with tofu, veggies. beans, and a delicious cured pork. We ordered some extra cabbage from an extremely long menu of side dishes (“I don’t even know what everything on here is,” Alex said.), and a few lunch beers. It was vacation after all.

Alex showed us his speech, which was an incredibly thoughtful meditation on being a teenager and what your youthful opportunities and responsibilities are. I copy edited the crap out of it, and tried to reassure him that I’ve marked up native English speakers’ work as much. And then we just chatted. For the kids willing to take advantage of it, fluent conversation is really the best resource Peter and I can offer in terms of English language acquisition. It’s fun to have friends, but it’s also really cool to know that we’re helping those friends just by sitting around and talking.

At this lunch, we also solved a mystery that we’d been thinking about for the past year. Our favorite Chinese pop song came on — a song we had been calling “Shampoo Jeans.” And I started to sing along with our made up words. “You know this song?” Alex asked. We explained to him what “shampoo jeans” is and he laughed at us and revealed that the song is actually called “伤不起” [pronounced Shang Bu Qi]. Give it a listen and try not to hear “shampoo jeans” in the chorus.

Nov 1, 2012

Finding Golden Hans

Always remember to look up

Beer and meat at Golden Hans
The KegsThe buffetSome meatA table full of plates

A week or so after our return from Beer City, China, we were taking a walk by the river and Peter happened to glance up to a second story window.

“Beer, beer, beer, beer!” he said, or something more thoughtful than that. Because, visible from the street, there were four silver tanks, just the right size for a microbrewery.

On the banner below the window was pictured a cartoony German man and some prices. We had to know more.

Upstairs we found Golden Hans, a German-themed churrascaria with Chinese characteristics. There was an all-you-can-eat buffet, waiters carried be-meated swords from table to table, and they served honest-to-goodness, brewed-on-the-premises beer. A wheat and a stout that both beat the pants off of Tsingtao. (We love you Tsingtao!)

The place had probably been in Luzhou much longer than we had, and we had walked that strip of river many, many times before. But it was not until after we had traveled halfway across the country to drink beer out of a keg that we looked up. Luzhou is a vertical city, and there are a ton of businesses that are on the second floor, or above, of any given building. But we’re just not used to looking for things above street level. I think we’re missing out on a lot.

Golden Hans, anyway, was a terrific find. The food is unmistakably cooked in China, but they capture “western” better than any other local western restaurant. There are plenty of vegetable dishes at the buffet, and the meat-on-swords cuts range all over the place, from “too weird for me” to “honey BBQ pork, please give me much more!”

We usually spend a little more than 100RMB there, which is more than twice what a meal at sticks costs, so we’ve made it a special occasion place. But, with at least 4 return visits in the past two months, we’ve found reason to celebrate a lot of special occasions.

Nov 1, 2012

We found olives!

Maximum western comfort: Achieved

We found olives

We picked up a couple of cool souvenirs in Qingdao, but our favorite purchase was the bottle of olives we found at Carrefour. Meaning the best martinis in China were at our house — for almost one full week!

Nov 1, 2012

串串, the moment of truth

Or, how do you keep a hungry couple in suspense …

Sticks survived the flood!

If you’ll recall, before we left for Qingdao (way back in August), we were still not sure if our beloved sticks had made it through July’s flood.

Well, you can exhale, folks. When we returned to Luzhou (again, way back in August), the tables were out and the broccolis were skewered! It was an almost-Labor Day miracle.

Oct 19, 2012

Summer vacation: Street dinner

“他吃素。他不吃肉。”

Mystery dinner tastes great
Eat on the streetWhere are we?

I talk a lot about all of the western food that we eat while we’re on vacation because a lot of it is stuff that we don’t get back at home. But, when I can figure out how to order things, we really enjoy Chinese food, too.

After a night at Beer Mama’s, we needed a little something before bed. There was an outdoor restaurant around the corner, and we plopped down and scanned the menu for characters we recognized. We were feeling really ambitious.

I tried to explain to our guy that Peter is a vegetarian and doesn’t eat meat. We came to some sort of understanding, and he hurried away. On his return, he brought some meat skewers (which I had asked for by pointing out someone else who had them) and a very tasty meat and mushroom soup. But, this is life for a hungry veggie in China. Peter ate around the meat and pronounced it “delicious, and that’s coming from a vegetarian.”

Would you like to play a game?

Oct 18, 2012

Summer vacation: Where are we?

A simple martini in an unlikely location

At the Russian Bar

I’ll be honest, that evening our pre-dinner libations had been many and strong, and we were having a little trouble finding the restaurant where we wanted to eat. But we did find this Russian bar with internet access.

We ordered drinks and I looked up our destination (which would turn out to be about 50 feet further along). I got an adequate bloody Mary, but Peter’s vodka martini was quite good. The bartender took his time making it, and he looked very proud when Peter told him that it was as good as any vodka martini he had had in New York.

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Trattoria Verde

Our Italian splurge

Real Italian food!
Our new friend at the table next door took a picture of us all fancyPeter, outside the restaurant

The online expat reviews of this Italian joint were strong, so we made a reservation and got all dolled up.

The split-level restaurant is cozy, and has a breezy, beachy style — with quirky, cute artwork and tchotchkes on the walls — that wouldn’t be out of place on Main Street in Southampton. Upstairs is a little dark, but we were sat downstairs, with a view of the open kitchen. I can verify that everyone was working very hard.

It was exciting to see a real wine list after so much time. We were trying not to go too crazy, however, at a restaurant that was at the upper end of our budget, so I ordered a glass of the house red, which did me right. Peter’s martini was garnished with a black olive — the one small disappointment of the meal.

We started with an appetizer of roasted asparagus with some sort of hard cheese shaved over the top. (It was something delicious and fancier than Parmesan, is all we can remember; one lesson of this trip was: take better notes.) This was the first time we had seen asparagus anywhere in China, and so we anticipated the dish hungrily. And, oh, it was so good! The asparagus was roasted just perfectly, and the salty tang of the unknown cheese was a wonderful compliment.

As for mains: Peter went with a cheese ravioli, garnished with pine nuts — another rarity over here — and I got a pizza with prosciutto and ricotta cheese. The ravioli were incredible, and the pizza was the Best in China So Far. The crust was thin and crispy, and the sauce (which is most often what Chinese pizza gets wrong) was light and just the right amount of sweet and salty.

It was a pricy meal, but we definitely felt that it was money well spent.

The Trattoria Verde kitchen

Let’s repair to the bar for a digestive …

Oct 2, 2012

Summer vacation: Finding that Spark

Beer and pizza still works in China

A wide sampling of the Spark menuReal microbrewThe Spark exterior

Just up from May 4th Square is The Spark, a modern little microbrew pub specializing in fancied-up American diner food. The whole menu is tantalizing (and we were seriously tempted to come back for brunch), but we ultimately settled on a pizza, a salad, a steak sandwich with fries, and pickles. (Pickles are emerging as a surprise contender in the “what do we miss most” game.) And, of course, beer.

Beer was the big reason we sought out the Spark, having read that Beer City actually had its own microbrew. And though we were well full up on Tsingtao (this was the meal had after our brewery tour), we did have room for one more — especially one more made small-batch, on the premises.

It was absolutely fantastic. The beer had a golden honey color, a good head, and it was cloudy and full of flavor. The food, also, did not disappoint. Everything we ordered was comforting, authentic and delicious. The steak on my sandwich was beautifully marinated, and it was served with hard-boiled egg slices, making it extra hearty. Peter’s pizza did pretty well by the standards of pizzas we’ve had in China.

We read about this place on some expat boards (obviously; we still don’t speak Chinese). But, as we’d seen in most of our western dining experiences in Qingdao, the Spark’s patrons were a good mix of westerners and Chinese. And everyone looked to be having a good time.

Now that we’re well fed, let’s get out on the water …