Hello Uncle Foreigner

tacos

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.

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.

Jun 28, 2012

Replace your passport: Back to the Consulate

I can almost prove my identity in an international context

Should you try a hot dog?
No hot dogs for me

New to Passport Quest? Follow the adventure from the beginning here.

☆ Side Quest: 7-Eleven

Objective: Have a snack

We were about an hour from having the best tacos in China, so Peter talked me out of the 7-Eleven hot dog, though he did take a photo of it. That’s for you, dad! (Coincidentally, we later read a small write up of 7-Eleven in Chengdoo. About the hot dog, they said: “It’s depressing to look at. … All I taste is ketchup and soggy bread.”)

Instead we got some juice and a Snickers. We sat at the counter to eat our snack, because 7-Eleven has a dine-in option here. A nearby school let out while we were there, and the place flooded with junior students on break. You may already suspect this, but I can tell you for sure: being a 12-year-old boy involves a lot of punching and shouting, wherever you are.

☆ Side Quest: The Lazy Pug

Objective: Mexican food!

Part of the reason that we planned our return trip to Chengdu the way we did was so that we’d be able to hit up Taco Night at the Pug. We’ve been salivating for these tacos since the last time we were there in January.

And they did not disappoint. What’s more, our delirious memories of cheese and tortillas had overshadowed what was a superb drinks menu, so we were pleasantly surprised all over again. They had bitters! And ice cubes! And mint! And ginger ale! And … wait for it … GREEN OLIVES! They were big and meaty and stuffed with peppers.

Giddy with delight over the meal we had just had (OK, and the drinks may have played a role in this too), I went to pay the bill while Peter went to the washroom. I struck up a conversation with the bartender/half-owner:

Me: Where do you find olives here? Do you have to have them delivered?

Bartender: No. They’re just at the grocery store. At Carrefour. [He seemed a little surprised that I wouldn’t know this, I think.] Though they can be hit-and-miss.

Me: Really! I’m living in Luzhou. We don’t have olives there.

Olivetender: Oh! Where is Luzhou?

Me: Four hours south of here. We don’t get a lot of western things there - like olives, and olives - so we’re excited to be here for a short trip. So we can have olives.

Oliver: What do you do in Luzhou?

Me: We’re ESL teachers. We never get olives! OLIVES!!!

Here's where the tacos happen
Tacos and martinis make me awkward with strangers.

There’s no official transcript of our conversation, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it went. On first analysis, I thought the awkwardness came from the fact that I hadn’t small-talked anyone in English in ten months, but now I think that each of us just thought the conversation was about something different; he was having a nice back-and-forth about a Chinese city near to his own, and I could not be swayed from my single-minded pursuit of olives.

Regardless of the awkwardness, the takeaway was that the Case of the Olives in China was back open!

(Actually, the literal takeaway was a couple of extra tacos that we enjoyed back in the hotel room later that night.)

Chapter 5: The Consulate

Objective: Pick up your new passport

When we got to the consulate on Friday afternoon, the line for Chinese nationals wrapped around the block. And there were a ton of school groups (we could tell by the uniforms) on line; our guess was that summer study abroad programs were starting soon. Being American, I got to jump to the front of the line - which felt like fair play; at the Chinese Consulate in New York last August, we waited forever while Chinese nationals just cruised right upstairs.

I presented my receipt and paperwork, and received my shiny, new, visa-less passport.

The main quest beckons us back to Luzhou, but there’s still plenty to do in Chengdu before departing …

Jan 20, 2012

Chengdu: Taco Night at The Lazy Pug

With guacamole and cheese

Tacos and Nachos, Oh my!

In our research of Chengdu, a bar called The Lazy Pug kept coming up over and over as a popular hangout for Western ex-pats. That in itself wasn’t super enticing to us; we didn’t move to China to surround ourselves with other Americans. But. Thursday nights are Taco Night!

The bar is run by an American couple, and is pretty authentic in its Western-ness. It was easy to pretend that we were at home in New York while we were there - which isn’t something we want to do often, but every once in a while it’s comforting.

So, much like our visit to Hong Kong, this was a great place to assuage a little homesickness. Unlike our tacos in Hong Kong (which were good enough for being overseas), the Pug’s tacos were excellent. The meat was seasoned well and they understood what vegetarian meant, so both I and Peter were pleased. In fact, on our way out, we told the female half of the ownership couple that these were the most authentic tacos we’d had in this hemisphere. Her response was that she and her husband were taking a month off soon to travel and figure out how to make their own corn tortillas to make the tacos even better!