Monday, May 24, 2010

Fate's fool

Yes, I am feeling put upon - again.

Usually, one of the few reliable comforts of life in China is the ready availability of yangrou chuanr - mini-kebabs of spiced mutton grilled on makeshift roadside barbecues.

I mean, there aren't too many ways you can f*** up chuanr, really. Well, yes, you can let your fire go out. Or you can burn the whole restaurant down. But aside from those two extremes, there's not a lot to go wrong. Those little cubes of meat are pretty tolerant of being over- or undercooked a bit. And we get used to a certain heavy-handedness with the cumin-and-chilli sprinkles from time to time; and the occasional smattering of food-poisoning bacilli. We are hardy folk, we adoptive Beijing-ren. We take ever-so-slightly rancid or tai lade meat in our stride as the most minor of everyday vexations. Such trivial shortcomings are more than outweighed by the reliable satisfaction of getting a good fix of fat, protein, and gristle in 10 minutes or less.

Because chuanr really shouldn't ever take very much longer than that, even if the place is busy. If it isn't very busy (or they've got some that they'd already started to cook before you showed up - don't ask!), it could take only 4 or 5 minutes. But 8 to 10 is probably standard. If it gets up to 12 or 14 minutes, the alarm bells start going off.

And that's now happened to me twice - in under a week. Twice, at Muslim restaurants that used to be amongst the pick of the local crop, I've been kept waiting 40 minutes or more for my food, and eventually had to walk out in disgust - and still unfed. And neither of these places was all that busy.

It could just be that the Universe is conspiring against me this month (it usually does, bastard Universe!). But I always like to seek for possible patterns and explanations in the mysterious play of events in the world around me, not merely dismiss unhappy coincidences as the work of a malign Fate or the product of plain 'bad luck'.

Both of these restaurants had been more than averagely good, and thus considerably more than averagely successful. Both had made enough money to take over neighbouring premises, doubling or trebling their business space (one had done this a couple of years ago, but the transformation of the other is, I think, very recent). There may have been changes of management (well, at the latter restaurant almost certainly, I fear, since there wasn't a single face I recognised among the staff there; the long-time laoban is still installed in the other, but had been having a long nap after a late finish the night before, and so wasn't taking care of business). There have certainly been changes of staff: both places seem to have had a 100% turnover of cooks and wait staff in the short spell since I last visited them, and the newbies are little more than children.

I wonder if this is the problem. Either the owners get greedy because of their success, and start trimming costs by hiring inexperienced staff; or, more likely, landlords get greedy because of a bar's or restaurant's perceived success, bump up the rents massively, and force the restauranteurs to start cutting corners madly to try to retain a profit margin. Result: comically dismal service, and interminable waits for food - even when the restaurant is three-quarters empty.

I fear that's it. It wasn't just a one-off or a two-off mischance, but the beginnings of a syndrome.

Having been so brutally disappointed, twice in quick succession, by two of my erstwhile favourite restaurants, I am now rather afraid of trying a chuanr place ever again.

(And when you're tired of chuanr, you're tired of Beijing.....)


Ruby said...

Next time check out this little place.
Not sure why I didn't think to suggest it on Sunday actually. Been there with BD a couple of times now and it seems to be pretty reliable and the wings in particular are great. Hopefully it's still too hidden to be hit by "greedy landlord" syndrome.

Froog said...

Hmm, I'm a little sceptical as to whether it's really got anything to distinguish it from any other neighbourhood chuanr stand. The pictures don't look that enticing.

And BD's "directions" leave much to be desired. 200m away isn't "next to"; and "east of Jianghu" would be the other side of Jiaodaokou Nandajie!! I assume he means something like "20m west of..." The poor man's obviously been in China too long and is going native.