Hello Uncle Foreigner

change

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.

Dec 2, 2014

We Nova Heart Chengdu

A weekend in which we rock in the big city

Chengdu Nov 2014 from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The Lion's Head Meatball at the chicken restaurant
Our weekend was all about the music, but we found some time for food, too.
Helen Feng rocks Little Bar
China’s Blondie rocks Little Bar.

Helen Feng is the Queen of the Beijing indie rock scene. It’s a small kingdom, admittedly, but one that looms large in our hearts. So earlier this month when Helen Feng came to Little Bar in Chengdu, we had to go.

Her voice is rich and inviting, deceptively delicate but delivered with precision and power. You can hear Debbie Harry when she sings, but Helen Feng is entirely a force unto herself. Nova Heart, her current project, is a shoegaze-electronica act that maintains the intensity and spirit of Feng’s punk past. We listened to her Soundcloud on repeat in the weeks leading up to the concert.

While in Chengdu, we hit up all of our usual spots, only to find that things have changed. Joker Bar’s still there, thank goodness, as is the Sultan. But Lazy Pug owners Danny and Dana have moved to Bankok! To open an American-style BBQ joint! The original, however, is still alive and thriving, thanks to local Stella and her Swiss husband. Devastated at the potential loss of their favorite date spot, the couple stepped up and bought the place! Stella filled us in on all the news during our visit. Apparently D&D are sick of the under-heated Sichuan winter, a feeling we understand quite well. But we’re pleased to report that the Pug is still serving up the best taco in China.

In the spirit of rock and roll, this trip we made a big effort to try some new Chengdu things. Not too far from our favorite hostel The Loft, there is a large grey building festooned with red stars, and a giant chicken on the top. It’s something we drive past several times each visit, and finally, this time, we went inside. It’s a fine-dining restaurant with a revolutionary theme, and really, really delicious traditional cuisine. One could really splash out there on hundred dollar (U.S.) fishes and deluxe cuts of meat; we went with the more modest but still fantastic Lion’s Head Meatball and perfectly seasoned stuffed buns. It was one of the best meals we’ve had in China.

Things are much more casual down by the river. Jah Bar sits unassumingly in a small strip of bars down a small alleyway. Not just the best bar in Chengdu, but the best in the world, said someone somewhere online. That’s not a review you ignore. Jah is a cozy little room dominated by a big stage in the middle. There are guitars, basses and a drum kit for anyone to play, and a loosely organized jam swelled up as the night went on. Talented locals and foreigners swapped in and out, going jazzier here, funkier there. It’s a scrappy room, and a lot of fun. The bar did just the basics and food came from the street vendors outside, who delivered BBQ to hungry patrons much to the Jah Bar cat’s delight.

Next door, we found Carol’s by the River. A little brighter and more spiffy — and nowhere near as cool, but they did have a late-night pizza. And a DJ, and some dancing fools. It was Ladies’ Night, and the girls at the table next to ours were having a great time.

But this is all preamble. Little Bar, Saturday night was the main event. Nova Heart took the stage shortly after the finish of the opening act (荷尔蒙小姐 — The Hormones, who were quite good). In person, Helen Feng was electric. She flirted and joked with the crowd, who loved her in return. Little Bar is small enough that the gig felt incredibly intimate, but Feng really has the star presence that could fill a whole stadium. Which made it all the more special that she was there with just us. Feng threw herself into her performance, jumping and dancing around then striking impish poses. And that voice gripped us all. She sings in English, but the emotion she conveys needs no translation.

Then, at ten on the dot, the concert was over. As is the custom at a Chinese rock show, everyone packed up quickly and left in an orderly fashion. A small crowd lingered outside, where Nova Heart CDs were for sale. We bought one, and raved about what we had just seen for our whole journey home.

Jul 4, 2014

Once more in Chengdu, the old and the new

It’s never the same river twice

Belly Dancing at the Sultan
I don’t know if every night at the Sultan is film-shoot exciting, but the food is always top notch.
The Pug's new location
The new Pug is hidden away in a huge shopping complex, but inside it’s delicious business as usual.
The abandoned side of the street on Xiao Tong Alley
Taggers have hit the abandoned buildings of Xiao Tong Alley pretty hard.
Live music in the German Bar
We weren’t expecting much from the parade of pop singers at the German Beer Bar, so we were really blown away by these two who were actually fantastic.

School’s out for the year, and we just got back from a little retreat to Chengdu for some international-style R&R. It was a trip conceived primarily with the goal of stuffing some tacos in our faces at the Lazy Pug; beyond that, we weren’t really aiming for anything other than revisiting our old favorites: Middle Eastern food at the Sultan, wine and book shopping at the Bookworm, maybe a performance at New Little Bar.

Checking in at the Loft — never stay anywhere else — the desk clerk recognized us from our last stay a year ago. As the sage voice of Uncle Foreigner, Peter and I like to pretend that we’re fade-into-the-background observers, but of course we stick out everywhere we go. That same day, Dana, owner of the Pug, clocked us as returners as well.

The Pug, by the way, has moved. South of the city, in a new mall, but the tacos are still fantastic. (I gorged to the point of physical discomfort.) So too has the Sultan relocated. Their new home, hidden down a quaint little alleyway, is fantastic with outdoor banquettes facing small private dining rooms all decorated in a fresh, beachy color scheme. The night we were there, a local television station was filming a piece about the place, and we were treated to a belly dancing performance with our meal.

Meanwhile, on Xiao Tong Alley — where the Loft lives — more and more of the south side of the street has been abandoned (a process we saw beginning almost 2 years ago). On the north side, however, there’s Joker Bar, a phenomenal new beer bar with a list of more than 100 brews — including a locally brewed IPA. Tasty. We made it our regular for the duration, and had some good chats with the owner’s girlfriend. Her English is great, and she keeps sharp watching “Breaking Bad.” She informed us that the government is moving everyone out of the south side of the alley so that they can tear it all down. My guess is that they’re running a metro line through there.

We did make it to Little Bar to catch Fat Shady, a local Chengdu rapper, and his posse. Peter and I laughed a little at the idea of Chinese rap, but they were really, really good. You could here shades of influence of everyone from Busta to Eminem — in a way that showed these kids knew their stuff, not that they were derivative. The crowd loved them, responding enthusiastically to English exhortations from the stage to “Put your hands up” and “Make some noise!” It was a lot of fun and we are definitely converts.

The big surprise of the trip had to be the German Beer Bar in the touristy fake “ancient town” of Kuanzhai Xiangzi. Our first visit was in January 2012, and we were the only customers in the bar. This time, however, the joint was jumping. They had a stream of live performers playing mostly harmless pop tunes that made for nice background noise. One woman, with a voice that ranged from Keren Ann delicate beauty to Melissa Ethridge strength and intensity, just killed it, however. She took that night from “fine” to “KA-POW.”

We try some Chengdu hot pot
We were a little underwhelmed by the Chengdu hot pot, but the place we chose was definitely a tourists-only affair. The atmosphere was pretty fun, anyway.

Jul 25, 2012

Replace your passport: Afterword

China never stops

Our favorite painting

One of the exciting things about living in China is literally watching it grow and change before our eyes. Every day, new buildings go up, new establishments open for business and our city expands.

But, constant change in itself becomes a pattern, so in Luzhou, at least, the rapid development has become almost invisible to us. “Have you seen the new pharmacy?” “That milk store looks new. I think it used to be a meat store.” “The shoe store got air conditioning.” … It’s all so normal that it just becomes background.

The old Triple Plus
Six months ago, we ate dinner here …
Chengdu changes
… but now it was nothing.

But visiting Chengdu, we had fresh eyes. And we could see development at work on a micro level in the Xiao Tong Alley area. Between January and June, one whole side of the street had been cleared out to make way for a huge-looking construction project. This meant that hundreds of people who lived in apartments there were now elsewhere. Morning Bar, where we played midnight guitar with a guy from Luzhou — gone. Triple Plus, with the cool murals — gone. And that was disappointing. But what’s going on there looks big, and we’re eager to see what grows up in that space.

And it wasn’t all a disappearing act. Door Bar — the funky bar-cum-performance/exhibition space — was still around. The MexItalian place was still there, with a new name. Among other new cute-looking spots, there was a western-style coffee shop that looked worth trying. And even the Loft got a new pool table area out in the courtyard. Xiao Tong Alley may have changed, but it still retained its vibrant and funky feel.

We didn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing on our first trip, but we vowed to spend more time on the Alley when we came back in two weeks.

Even in that short span of time, however, things changed. On our return, new coffee shop was already shuttered and on its way to becoming another establishment! And Door Bar was slammed closed forever! We’d have to find our drinks at some place brand new — which was fine; a bar called Middle had some pretty cool artwork.

My inexpert opinion of what’s going on is that Sichuanese capitalism is very much in a phase of “throw it against the wall and see what sticks.” There’s a high turn over (both in Luzhou and Chengdu) because people here are just figuring out the rules of capitalism for themselves. Along the way, they’re taking brilliant risks and sometimes making huge mistakes. But they’re trying it out to see what works. Which makes me think that the local entrepreneurs are incredibly brave!

Jun 11, 2012

Snaps: Upstairs, Downstairs

It happens just like that

BeforeAfter

One morning we woke up and found a new set of stairs had been carved in the hill, where all the students had been cutting their own path anyway. By the time we made our way back from dinner, the stairs were completed.

Things can be slow to start here in China, but once changes start happening, things move quickly.

Once the stairs were finished, the kids started cutting through the foliage at a different part of the hill. What are you going to do?