Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Queen is Dead!

Another one bites the dust.

I have complained many times, in a general way, about the extreme transience of our existence here in modern China; and I have, in particular, mourned the regular passing of my favourite bars and restaurants. Just a few weeks back, I complained about my inability to hang on to a decent Muslim eatery in my neighbourhood.

Well, we've just lost another one. It was not the one I mentioned in that earlier post as being my likely new local favourite. In fact, I'd never really built up any particularly strong affection for this latest victim (the quality of the food was rather too inconsistent; the service was rather too consistently surly and aloof); however, it was a great favourite of my buddy, The Choirboy, so over the past year or so I had become a more and more frequent visitor there, at his behest. In fact, over the past 6 months, it has been our regular default position for a Sunday evening rendezvous. We never found out its Chinese name, or even if it had one: to The Choirboy and his gang it was always known by the affectionate nickname 'The Kebab Queen'. The poor boy was quite distraught to learn that it had suddenly closed down a few days ago. Indeed, I fear for the health of his diet now. That was 'his' restaurant: he scarcely knew anywhere else!

It was located near the top of a charming little alley called Nanluoguxiang (these days, it is becoming known as NLG, for short), only about a 25-minute walk away. And it had the rare distinction of having an English version of its menu. It thus became hugely popular with the foreign residents of the adjacent Ju'er Hutong (one of the first Chinese neighbourhoods to be opened up to foreign tenants, so quite a little foreigner ghetto for the past several years), and more recently also with the increasing numbers of tourists being drawn to the area by the hotels and youth hostels that have been opening up along NLG.

I fear it may have been a victim of the progressive gentrification of the area over the past couple of years. The street has been heavily colonized by up-market restaurants, coffee shops, and trendy little boutiques; there are fewer and fewer bog-standard Chinese businesses hanging on there now, and, for me, it is a sad loss of the local character of the place. I quite like some of the new, smarter places down there, but I wouldn't want to see them drive the simpler, more traditional (cheaper!) restaurants into extinction.

Then again, there might be a more sinister aspect to this too. The Kebab Queen has been doing a better and better trade over the past year, and it is quite possible that the boss was getting fed up of being asked for bigger and bigger 'contributions' by the various local organs of power (police, gangsters, sanitation department, utilties people - in China, you have to pay everyone off). A number of times recently they have suffered mysterious one-day closures; they've quite often been warned off putting out their pavement furniture (not entirely unreasonable, since they were in fact blocking a fairly busy street); and on one occasion, they had a number of their windows broken. Definitely a whiff of foul play there. Maybe it was the landlord getting greedy for the prospect of a higher rent; or maybe it was a 'disagreement' with the neighbourhood racketeers.....

The Kebab Queen was a particularly tiny, particularly dirty 'hole-in-the-wall', but the beers were cheap, and occasionally even cold..... and during the summer we could take over the street outside with temporary chairs and tables. One phase of my day-long 'farewell party' (before taking my long summer break in the UK) took place there last June. I shall miss it for that alone.

The place also had two especially wonderful - and, I fear, unique - items on its menu. One was a kind of bing (a Chinese word seemingly applied to a huge variety of cakes, pancakes, and buns) made from potatoes and sesame seeds. The Choirboy and I never did quite work out what it was called in Chinese, despite always asking. We'd just say "that potato dish" and they'd always know what we meant. It was a large, flat potato cake, about 7" or 8" across. Now, the finely shredded potato interior was a little too soft for my taste, and it also - by some obscure process I'd rather not enquire into - acquired a rather unappealing dishwater-grey colour. And the coating of sesame seeds didn't really add anything to the experience for me. However, the contrast in textures between the squidgy insides and the crispy pan-fried outside was marvellous, it was a huge feed.... and I can never get enough of potatoes (perhaps it's the Irish ancestry?). I wonder if I'll ever find this wonderful dish again elsewhere.

Their other Unique Selling Point for me was in their presentation of nang bao rou. This is one of the classic Central Asian Muslim dishes from the far West of China - something that I recently honoured over on Froogville as one of my very favourite foods here. It's a rich stew of meat, vegetables, and noodles in a tomatoey broth spiced with lots of garlic, ginger, star anise, and chilli. Well, there are several variants of this sort of dish - but the twist here is that a flatbread is submerged in the yummy sauce, placed underneath all the other ingredients. Ah, but the KQ's remarkable innovation on this recipe was to cut the bread up into bite-size rectangles and lightly fry them, so that they would retain just a little bit of solidity even when thoroughly steeped in the tasty sauce. I have been to dozens of Muslim restaurants in this city, and I've never seen anywhere else do the nang bao rou like this - and I wouldn't have a clue how to request it. I fear I shall never see its like again. Ah well, any nang bao rou is good nang bao rou (wrestling large, pizza-slice segments of thoroughly sodden, hopelessly floppy bread out from under the pile of other ingredients - with chopsticks! - is one of the great joys of this dish); but I will miss the Kebab Queen's 'giant crispy crouton' variation.

But who knows? They may yet re-open again elsewhere in the vicinity...... I am keeping my eyes peeled, and asking around......



I wish you had pictures of all of these dishes you describe. That's why I take pictures of most of the yummy stuff I come across or make.

Froog said...

Yes, well it often doesn't look all that good.

And I am loathe to take my camera out with me on drinking sprees. So I have to try to "paint the picture" with words. Sorry.


I will stop asking for pictures! I also saw in a comment you had writte on the other post, that you want to keep it "literary".