Monday, April 30, 2007

The Muslim succession

A couple of weeks or so ago, I eulogised my 'second home' during my first couple of years in Beijing - a little restaurant on Jiugulou Dajie called Lanzhou Lamian, aka The Adventure Bar, aka The Legitimate Businessmen's Club, aka The Legit.

Funnily enough, we almost never actually ate there. It was a beer & football & late-night conversation venue, but never a favoured eatery. The best restaurant on that street was just over the road, a place The Three Amigos knew simply as 'The Muslim' (Central Asian-style Muslim food from the far Western regions of China - Xinjiang, Gansu - is staggeringly popular in Beijing, far and away the single most common type of cuisine to be found here: it's much more satisfyingly filling than the majority of Han Chinese food, with lots of fat, pasta-like noodles, flatbreads, and rich, spicy, tomatoey sauces and stews). We'd quite often kick the evening off there, eat, have a few beers, and then wander over to the rather more spacious Adventure Bar to fritter the rest of the night away. Indeed, it was one of the few places where I felt welcome enough that I wasn't self-conscious about eating there alone from time to time.

It was a sad day when - like the whole of the rest of that street - it was put under a demolition order to make way for road-widening and pre-Olympic prettification. In fact, they were the first of the businesses there to pack up and move out, catching us by surprise rather with the haste of their departure. It was only by chance that I was walking by one summer evening just as they were about to leave, and looked in to wish the family well and be photographed with their kids (the husband was hardly ever there, but the sternly beautiful lady who ran the place had just had their second baby). We had learned through Chinese friends that they were looking for another place to open up in the neighbourhood; but, alas, I've never run into them again.

The habit of relying on a 'good Muslim' joint nearby, both for the food and the cheap beers, was deeply ingrained by this time, and I began looking around for a successor. There were plenty of others in the neighbourhood, but none of them were quite as good or quite as close. Eventually I settled on a rather bigger one on the street leading from the apartment I'd just moved into (and where I still live, nearly three years later) to the subway station, only a 5-minute walk away. The food was adequate but unremarkable (although they did a decent ma po doufu, so my vegetarian girlfriend of the time, The Buddhist, was prepared to accept the place), but they learnt the trick of keeping plenty of beers in the fridge for me and my friends - and of putting some in the deep-freeze for a quick chill if they were caught short. I really don't ask much more of a Chinese restaurant than this. For a time, it was a regular late-night rendezvous for me and The Tedster, an American architect I was hanging out with quite a bit at that time; we both had the call-to-arms 'chuanr & beers?' as a saved text message on our mobile phones, ready to be sent out in an instant (rou chuanr - 'meat sticks' - are spicy mini kebabs, the ideal snack food). And, of course, I also introduced the place to Frank and Tony, the other two prongs of The Three Amigos, who eagerly embraced it as a venue for our occasional reunions, dubbing it 'The New Muslim'.

After a year or so, that was closed down too - expensively refitted and reopened as a much more upscale kind of restaurant. This new venture failed to attract a single customer, and I was hopeful that it might quickly revert to being an unpretentious 'hole-in-the-wall'; but after three or four more rapid changes of ownership, and some more costly remodelling, it has settled down as a mid-range Yunnan restaurant. It's not at all bad, but it's not 'a Muslim'.

I had been without a regular 'Muslim' for quite some time after this; but then, last summer, I noticed one had just opened up on The Street, Jiugulou Dajie, the site of the original 'Muslim', just a few hundred yards further north. I didn't take to it at first. The food could be wildly inconsistent; the chuanr were usually small and gristly; and they would not keep the beer in the fridge. However, they did do some dishes well; and lately, there have been some dramatic improvements - good chuanr and cold beer. It's a 10-minute walk away from home, but that's not the end of the world. This is looking like it could at last become established as 'The Third Muslim'.


Anonymous said...

I live in a former Xinjiang neighborhood (the hutong to highrise process is ongoing around me).

Out my window I can see a single narrow alley of old Muslim Restaurants, hanging on, resisting the wrecking ball.

Our favorite has recently undergone management change. Where there used to be Turkish speaking staff and cooks of central Asian origin who knew how to make a decent chuar, nan, and fat noodle and with whom we could communicate sufficiently to get our order right, there are now all Chinese staff and cooks... needless to say, the quality has gone seriously downhill. All that remains worth a taste is the yogurt and nan (the nan guys outside are still Xinjiang).

"our favorite" was discovered and decided upon before my arrival in Beijing. I think I may have to branch out and try one of the other little hole-in-the-walls, now.

Do you have a pic of yourself with the family from the first Muslim? possibility of posting?

Froog said...

Alas, no. It was taken on their camera-phone, and I never saw them again after that night.