Hello Uncle Foreigner

foreign food

Oct 2, 2014

Once again, the Chengdu bookends

The trifecta of big city fun

Beer in a horn at Joker Bar
It’s beer in a horn!
Our Indian feast at Tandoor was fantastically good.
Metal music by Yaksa at New Little Bar
Beijing-based metal band Yaksa tore up Little Bar

As per usual, we passed through Chengdu on our way to and from the magical mountains of north Sichuan. And, loyal readers, we all know what Chengdu means: Foreign food, delicious beers and live music.

It’s taken us almost three years to get to Tandoor, a well-reviewed Indian restaurant that we’ve just slept on for no good reason. It was super fantastic and we should have been going there all along! It was also empty on a Friday night — which is a mistake, Chengdusians. Everyone should go there now.

Joker Bar is holding strong. They attracted a cool crowd the night we were there (except for that girl puking in the corner, she was definitely not cool). For us, the bartender’s girlfriend suggested a Belgian beer, La Corne du Bois des Pendus, and she showed us the glassware. It was a horn! Peter had to go for it.

To complete the trilogy, there was Yaksa (夜叉), the metal band at Little Bar. Totally fun. We’re not rushing out to buy the album or anything, but it was a fun night of in-your-face rock.

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.

Mar 31, 2013

A picnic in the park

A plan comes together, Chinese-style

This park is still under construction, but come on in!

A few weeks ago, our boss pointed out a new park that is very near to our countryside campus. A perfect place for an American-style picnic, we thought. We invited our friend Alex along, as he loves all things American.

The date was set for yesterday, but Peter started work Thursday afternoon, boiling some potatoes and some eggs for a potato salad. Friday evening, we shopped for more provisions, including chips, veggies for crudité, cheese and bread for sandwiches, and Peter assembled the potato salad to set overnight. We woke up early Saturday morning to put everything else together. And then we waited at the bus stop for Alex …

… who had thought we meant Sunday, not Saturday. Bad news! He had class and couldn’t make it. But the show must go on.

The park entrance
Hard at work, building the park paths
The road down to the river

The front gate to the park was big and impressive, like most park entrances we’ve seen. But, we noticed a lot of men and women in construction wear, carrying big piles of stuff around. Our boss wouldn’t have sent us to a park that was still being built, would she? Of course she would.

But, in China, just because something is under construction, it doesn’t mean that civilians can’t wander around. No one batted an eye as we walked down the dirt/concrete roadway into the future park. At one point, the path was blocked by an excavator moving dirt from here to there, but the operator ceased his work so that we could scoot by.

As we got closer to the river, there was a small foresty area, with funkily shaped rock pieces scattered about, ready to be installed as park sculpture/benches. There was also one fake stump that was flanked by two smaller fake stumps, as if it were set out just for us to have our picnic.

As we sat and ate, we watched pleasure bikers traverse the path. (We also saw them all turn around when they got to the excavator.) The funny thing was, with just trees and a simple paved road, the partially completed park felt a lot more European or American than other Chinese parks we’ve been to. You could forget that you were anywhere. Despite the distant noise of construction, which is pretty much a constant in our lives anyway, the whole world was a cheese sandwich. And potato salad.

Our American picnicIt's lovely to eat under a tree

Feb 24, 2013

Winter break: Return to China

Leaving is also arriving

Peter on the river
Pete's Tex Mex
With the Lazy Pug on vacation, Peter’s Tex Mex took good care of us.
Jane and her dog
Jane’s dog, Mango. Or Bongo. Each of us heard something different.

Our trip to Penang was our first time outside of China in more than a year. And it was great — everyone spoke English, things weren’t just broken everywhere and always, there was no hoop jumping to get stuff done. Everything was so comfortable and easy!

But, during our last days of warmth and Anglophonics, there was a conspicuous absence of end-of-vacation dread. We were actually missing our difficult Chinese life, and couldn’t wait to get back.

We bookended our travel to and from Malaysia with a stay in Chengdu, and holed up for a few days at our favorite hostel, the Loft. We weren’t yet home, but it was great to be someplace familiar to continue our relaxing.

Of course, when in Chengdu, we have to go for Mexican food. The Pug, alas, was also on a winter break, but we found joy and margaritas at Peter’s Tex Mex. That’s this quarter’s tacos achieved.

Back home in Luzhou, we are immediately greeted with big hellos from all our students on the new campus. (They were finishing up the fall term’s final exams.) We made plans to have dinner with Tina, Sky, et al., later in the week.

And with two apartments, we got to make two returns. On a walk by the old campus, we ran into Young Jane and KOKO!, who were out walking their dogs. We sat on a bench by the river and showed them some photos of our vacation, and then went for ice cream (late January was surprisingly and gloriously warm here this year).

We finally felt like we were truly home when we went for dinner that night at 串串. Peter wore his new Iron Maiden football jersey that had arrived while we were away (“Is that for exercise?” our boss Linda asked), and it just felt like a special occasion. A random passerby even wished us in English, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”

We had a great time traveling, but it’s really nice to be home.

Peter in his new Maiden jerseyBread
Left: Peter in his new footie jersey at Man U. Right: Some delicious Chinese Muslim bread we found while out with Jane and KOKO!

Feb 18, 2013

Winter break: Eat this porkwich

Pork burger with cheese at the Desa Permata night market

Our talented food truck chef at work
Eat this pork burger because it is delicious

The street in front of our hostel hosts a street market every weekend, and it’s a bustler. When we went, one of the vendors was a food truck hawking pork burgers and it smelled so good, I just had to get a taste.

The young man operating the grill was a solid hipster type, wearing a knit hat in 80 degree weather and a plaid face mask, presumably for food safety. He could park anywhere in downtown Manhattan (wait, are food trucks still trendy?), charge $12 per, and the cool kids would line up for days.

The ground-pork patty was juicy and seasoned perfectly, with very peppery flavor. The cheese was nothing special, a pre-wrapped slice, but melted over the patty the two formed a happy marriage. Fresh lettuce, tomato and a simple bun completed the package.

It was simple as could be, but just delicious. Western food doesn’t need to be anything fancy, it just needs to be done right. And Pork Burger did it right.

Eaten at: Pork Burger food truck at the night market, Desa Permata.

Jan 28, 2013

Winter break: Hawker centers

Let the eating commence!

Hawkers by the Clan Jetties
Late lunch at a hawker center by the Clan Jetties
Kuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliNasi LemakBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliPeter eating Nasi LemakFilled pancakeSome dumplings
Above: Just a small photographic taste of the delicious excitement of Kuta Bali Cafe.
Hong Kong Cafe was also nearby, but our heart belonged to Kuta Bali
Hong Kong Cafe was just a stone’s throw from Kuta Bali, but we pledged our allegiance early on.

In Penang, eating at its most basic and cheapest is done at hawker centers, collections of food carts assembled around a large dinning area where people gather late into the night. The mood is festive and lively — we’re eating, hooray! — and sometimes there’s karaoke or dancing. Despite it’s simplicity, It’s a place where a meal is an event.

In general, the food from these humble carts is cheap, but no less than absolutely delicious. It’s a point of pride for some of the hawkers that their cart and their dish has been in their family for generations. Every kind of cuisine is represented: Indian, Chinese, Malay … even western — though, to be honest, none of the western food looked all that enticing to us.

There are a few famous centers around Penang that are listed in all the guidebooks, but take a walk and you’ll find one. We had three good ones on our block alone. We came to be quite attached to the Kuta Bali Cafe, a large and lively dining hall just a short walk from our hostel. We ended up there pretty much every night, for a meal, a drink, a late-night snack, or just to get one more taste of that wonderful dish we tried the night before. Going from cart to cart every night, we soon had compiled a long list of favorites.

Emboldened by his discovery of the 牛肉面, Peter’s vegetarian strategy for this trip was to not worry about meatlessness, but instead look for dishes where the meat could be pushed to the side, or moved over to my plate. (I felt a little Jack Sprat and his wife on more than a couple occasions.) He found a couple of tasty treats this way, but even more amazingly, we found that we could actually ask the cooks to dish up their dish meat-free. Because they speak English in Penang! And understand vegetarianism! Peter even got a chicken pita sandwich, hold the chicken.

On average, our food costs would be between 10-20RM [or US$3-7] — the beers would add another 40RM [or about US$13] — which made eating this way very attractive. But it was also a super fun atmosphere. Sitting out in the clear tropical nights with a bucket of iced beers and plates piled high with our new favorite foods — you really can’t beat that. It’s like the best summer BBQ you’ve ever been to, catered by 50 chefs who are all experts in their cuisine. We were in heaven … and so were the locals, to whom this is an everyday experience.

We didn’t know exactly, when we set out, what we were looking for our of our Penang experience, but if all we did was eat a meal at Kuta Bali, that would have been enough.

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.

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!

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?