Way out yonder in Caochangdi (槽场地), a place which not so long ago was nought but a rough hamlet some miles clear of the tumultuous clamour of Beijing, but which is now, thanks to the tsunami-style onrush of the urban sprawl.... well, it's a different world out there, still. It doesn't feel like Beijing, although it ought to. Ranged along the outer edge of the North-East 5th Ringroad, it would appear now to have been absorbed into the mighty conurbation; Jiuxianqiao Lu, these days one of the most modern-seeming bits of Beijing, is only a couple of miles away; scores of trendy galleries and studios have sprung up around it, making it an offshoot of the not-so-far away Dashanzi/798 'art zone'; and yet, and yet.... somehow there's an obstinate grunginess about the place that gamely resists re-classification as a 'suburb'.
It is, thus, somewhat incongruous and surprising to find in the midst of this shabby little colony of unreconstructed 1970s China a rather classy and foreigner-friendly little restaurant called - quite quaintly, cleverly - Fodder Factory (a rare, possibly even unique example of business naming that is both appropriate [for a potentially mildly trendy, but still quite down-at-heel and unpretentious restaurant] and a good translation of the Chinese [apparently the area has been known for decades as a centre for the production of agricultural feed, and this is what Caochangdi means]).
The friendly laoban speaks very good English, and has translated his short-ish but just slightly out-of-the-ordinary menu into good English. The decor is a cosy blend of naturally weathered traditional Qing-style furniture, diverting art bric-a-brac and pop culture kitsch (just enough, not wildly overdone as in most Chinese places of this type), and a few notes of memorable eccentricity (a very well-travelled double bass, missing a string, hangs upside down behind the bar). The portion sizes are mostly pretty generous, and it's tasty, clean, well-prepared stuff. At the weekend, we ended up spending only around 80 rmb each - despite a rash over-order on the desserts and drinking cocktails and semi-premium beers.
I would go out there again for the food (even though it's 10 or 12 miles from where I live, and I don't have much choice but to negotiate with a hei che driver in order to return to civilization afterwards), but... oh my god, I would certainly go out there for the booze. I think the local beer is only 4 or 5 rmb for a big one, and they have some good imported stuff for 15 or 20, but the value is the 700ml bottles of Asahi Super Dry for 10 rmb. Most of the cocktails and mixed drinks are only 20 or 25 rmb. Their Long Island Iced Tea has the requisite five full, big measures (and, as far as I could tell from a few tentative sips of my friend's drink, full strength, non-fake booze!) for.... 30 rmb. He's really not making much money on that.
Ah, this is what all of Beijing - the cheaper, more fun bits, anyway - used to be like 6 or 7 years ago, before the Olympics came along and spoiled everything. No, no, it isn't. It's what a few of the very best places were almost like, and we imagined the rest ought to be. This is nostalgia, with improvements.
I am seriously tempted to look into hiring a mini-van and taking The Lads out there for a Big Sesh one Saturday Night. I think we'd be "showing a profit" within a couple of hours.
And even if we didn't quite cover our transport costs.... well, it's just a much nicer place to drink - and eat - than almost anywhere I can think of in the city itself. This could be my 'Big Thing' of the year....
(But then, I went a couple of times early last summer, and haven't managed to get back again since. It is in Caochangdi, goddammit. I think even our neighbour city of Tianjin is probably easier to get to [5 or 6 times as far, but with express road and rail links]. Christ, if you have the horror of hei che drivers that I do, even Shanghai is arguably easier to get to: the airports are crap, and miles out of town, but at least you can ride in on the subway these days.... It's a problem, yes it is. But I think mini-bus hire might be THE ANSWER. Watch this space.)