Hungry Dan vs. Gui Jie: The Ghost of Hunger Past

Culture, Travel | by Dan Shapiro
Posted: October 15th, 2008 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
  Hungry Dan Shapiro tackles Beijing's supernaturally delicious Ghost Street and finds scary good eats in four very different restaurants. Chances are, if you're a first-time visitor to Beijing, your itinerary will include de rigueur excursions to the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square and Summer Palace. You'll be herded around the city like cattle by your tour guide, make an outrageous number of stops at souvenir shops and ultimately conclude your exhausting day at one of Quanjude's many tables for a set meal of roast duck. But do Beijingers really eat banquet-style kaoya every night? Where are the authentic eateries that locals frequent? And what is on their plates? I must first admit that I do indeed have a deep affinity for the delicate flavor and moist texture of mallard meat wrapped in a thin pancake, topped with hoisin sauce and spring onion. However, my modus operandi is to pierce the surface of the Capital's culinary realm, and discover what lies beneath. With this single objective, I walk over to the information desk of my hotel and inquire about the city's best restaurants, and am instantly referred to Dongzhimen Nei Da Jie ( 东直门内大街). Also known as "Gui Jie" (鬼街) or "Ghost Street," Dongzhimen's name derives from the street market that once inhabited the space (specifically the eerie, deserted quiet of said bazaar at night). In its current incarnation, however, Gui Jie's bright red lanterns and bustling atmosphere are anything but ghostly.
Ghost street mojo
Ghosts bend light, inundating the street in spectral reds...
My contact at the hotel warns me of Dongzhimen's confounding surfeit of eateries, but as a resident of another cosmopolitan Chinese city and self-appointed dining authority, I figure that a simple stroll along the block and look through a few choice windows will suffice to make my decision. I grossly underestimate the situation. Gui Jie's crimson canopy shelters a nearly limitless number of choices and its full length extends for over a kilometer, though the distance seems far longer than that, as if subject to the strange supernatural rules of a culinary Twilight Zone. Every restaurant I encounter tempts me sorely, but my inner gourmet irrationally checks my enormous hunger, compelling me to seek perfection. This impossible desire makes it impossible to choose. Chronic indecision compounds my frustration as my stomach growls. I decide to focus my mission by limiting my choices to the tastrel="nofollow" iest Yunnan flavors Gui Jie has to offer. Finally, across Dongzhimen Bei Xiao Jie, in shadows beyond the glow of the massive lantern-lit pavilion, I see a subtle sign advertising Yunnan cuisine. The mere thought of some seriously spicy meats and fried-potato pancakes causes my jaw to slacken. Transfixed by the sign, I grin as only a gourmand can, and a bit of drool dribbles from the corner of my mouth. Amazing spread Food In Novel ( 边城小镇) is the target. I enter and am immediately delighted by their massive, well-organized menu. I settle on some green Yunnan fried rice, cold drunken chicken, spicy rabbit meat served in a cornucopia, spicy green beans, a whole peppercorn fish, fried eggplant steaks and the aforementioned potato pancake. Oh yes, and Yanjing beer. The restaurant is a bit loud (it is China after all) and my waitress a tad clueless, but the food's flavor and presentation are both excellent. I've gone beyond just sating my hunger—I'm stuffed to the point that I have to sit and rest for half an hour. I reach for a cigarette to ease my indigestion, but am quickly reprimanded. Food In Novel is a smoke-free joint. Before I slip into a food-induced coma, I decide to return home to rest after a dining experience that can be best described as exhausting. * Round two of "Dan vs. the Ghost" is off to a late start. The offerings of the Modern Sky music festival led me astray, but a feeling of starvation has imposed itself upon my awareness, drowning out all other sensations. That earlier sense of singular focus reasserts itself and hunger once again reigns supreme. I return to Dongzhimen. Restaurants on Guo Jie keep live fish for the freshest flavor Unfortunately, it's almost midnight, and my options are limited. I am turned away at several restaurants as they close up. I used to work in the food service industry and hated it when people arrived at closing time, but can't help being borderline irate that they deny my cry for help and nourishment. Luckily, the woks at one eatery are still hot. Lanterns are in full glow, a neon sign brightly burns with threl="nofollow" e words: Ming Hui Fu. I race to the table and immediately request some cold, garlic-sautéed cucumbers and a bottle of Yanjing to get me through the ordering process. Once again I splurge: sweet and sour pork, mala dofu, Kung Pao chicken, sweet breaded fish, greens with mushrooms, sautéed potato strips and, yes, Beijing roast duck. The gratification is instant. The service is actually rather prompt and efficient. The waitress even offers me a a of the live fish to make sure it meets my approval. I know the wait staff and cooks must want to close up shop, but still, I eat at a snail's pace. Surprisingly, no one hurries me out the door. I wouldn't say the food is outstanding, but despite my taste buds being numbed by a full day of beer guzzling it hits the spot. The bill arrives and I brace myself for a king's ransom, while fumbling for a butt (yes, cigarettes are allowed in here). I check the bill and am relieved too see that my meager funds will, in fact, easily cover the cost of the royal banquet I have just downed. * After careful planning, I know the third evening of my Ghost Street experiment will be a triumph. It's 7:30pm, and I've already spent two nights staking out the lay of the land. My gullet growls greedily, anxious for heaps of edibles to arrive. Quickly rounding the corner from the Dongzhimen metro station, I dart into 7-11, grab a box of Zhongnanhai 8s, and proceed to fantasize about all the exquisite dishes I'll order. Then, out of nowhere, I notice a small Cyrillic sign which causes me to abandon that plot entirely. I simply cannot say no to Russian food, it's built into my chemistry. This coincidental appearance of an establishment dedicated to my ancestral cuisine makes me suspect the influence of Gui Jie spirits are at work.   Traktirr Pushkin is instantly inviting—large vats of green, gold and black beer greet my entry. I hobnob with the proprietor for a moment (note to reader, although I'm American by birth, I'm of Russian decent, and my not-so-slight resemblance to Lenin often segues into random conversation with Russian nationals), who then leads me to a nice table by the bar. He signals for the nearest waitress to bring some cold, pickled vegetables while I think on my order. I glance at the menu for just a second, and, rather than dissect the offerings, simply direct my requests to the waitress in a combination of Russian and Chinese, leaving her quite confused. I inhale a pot of borscht (beet and cabbage soup), down two plates of pilmeni (Russian dumplings) and then slowly chomp and chew every bite of my Kotleta (ground meat patties) while sipping several bottles of Baltika No. 8 porter. Yes, my intended destination was a Chinese establishment, but I am not the least unhappy with my decision to stray. * It's my final evening on Gui Jie, and, much like that first night, I'm a bit nervous about making the right decision, or at least not making the wrong one. Several restaurants have workers out on the street, courting potential guests with menus and offers. I'm put off by their desperation. What I do respond to, however, is the sign featuring a cute little lamb above the door of a hot pot restaurant. The lamb is in fact Little Sheep, and I am informed that it's actually a chain restaurant specializing in Mongolian-style hot pot. The warm atmosphere (the heat from all the pots provides a nice relief from the already-chilly Beijing air) is inviting, the scent of boiling meat undeniable. Following a tendril of lamb-scented steam, I squat at a table, determined to enjoy my last meal as if I were man condemned. I summon the fuwuyuan and select the lamb and beef combo, some premium beef, an order of fish balls, shrimp, sliced potatoes, lettuce, bok choy, lotus root, mushrooms and noodles, and yes, more Yanjing. The wait is short, and rather than methodically dip my ingredients into the pot, I just toss it all in at once, potatoes first since they take the longest to cook. I'm given a peanut-flavored dipping sauce by the waitress to accompany the soy and hot pepper oil, but I decide that the ingredients stand on their own. I briefly consider that maybe I should have looked harder for an unknown gem, a restaurant no other white man has dared venture into. Am I a lazy sellout for choosing a chain on the final night of my culinary adventure? I think on it a moment and finally realize that Gui Jie's ghosts have been spiritually guiding my quest for gastronomic bliss from the outset, and they've led me here for a reason. A sudden shift of the chopsticks on my table confirms the suspicion. Thus satisfied with spectral evidence confirming this adventure's success, I seal the deal with one final fish ball.
More of the "Best of Gui Jie" Jingui Xiaoshancheng Add: 183 and 253 Dongzhimen Nei DaJie Tel: 6407-6570 Specialty: Spicy Shrimps Xiao Yu Shan Add: 195 Dongzhimen Nei DaJie Tel: 6401-9899 Specialty: Meat Skewers Xiao Dong Tian Add: 269 Dongzhimen Nei DaJie Tel: 8404-9556 Specialty: Malatang Du Men Chong Add: 5-3 and 208 Dongzhimen Nei DaJie Tel: 8406-2040, 6404-4147 Specialty: Grilled Fish Huang Ji Huang Add: 10-9 Dongzhimen Nei DaJie Tel: 8407-1686 Specialty: Fish Stew
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