There's no taste like home
It is always a pleasant experience to find a dish you loved as a kid is as good as ever. That's what I discovered when I traveled back to my hometown in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, for the Spring Festival.
My friends took me to breakfast at Liang Lai Feng Restaurant, where the most famous specialty is latang, or spicy soup.
The last time I tried it must have been 10 years ago. It's a soup of egg slices, and slow-boiled chicken and eel slices, spiced with black pepper. The good old comfort food warmed my stomach and dazzled my taste buds.
To accompany the soup, we ordered traditional dim sum. The buns are fried in oil in an iron pan, and water is added later to steam them. This gives the pork-filled buns crisp, golden bottoms and soft tops.
A dim sum variety unique to Xuzhou is the pancake roll with sanzi - a thin, crispy, deep-fried flour stick.
We also ordered a helping of fresh pork buns and steamed jiaozi with shepherd's purse stuffing. These arrived hot in bamboo steamers.
Next came small plates of preserved duck eggs, vegetal "chicken" rolls made of bean curd, boiled peanuts and steamed pork sausage. The whole meal was nicely washed down with a steaming bowl of spicy soup.
The breakfast cost 30 yuan ($4.6) a person. It is a clean restaurant with relatively good service. The eatery also serves lunches and dinners that feature signature Xuzhou specialties, such as local sausage, potato starch noodles and slow-boiled pork trotters.
Best bites of cheap eats
No 1 Beibatiao Restaurant is one of Beijing's rare value eateries, with lower-than-usual prices for higher-than-usual quality.
The banner above its gate advertises its specialties - Yunnan and Beijing fare.
No 1 Beibatiao's pork and peanut jelly is tasty and elastic. Shredded cabbage slices with black fungus are another nice cold starter. The fried starch sausage does not look so good but tastes wonderful.
Tangy yet sweet hawthorn juice is a very popular beverage option, priced at a very reasonable 5 yuan (76 US cents) a jar.
Kunming-style fried potato slices serve as a good example of how a very common ingredient can be made into a very extraordinary dish. For a classic Yunnan dish, try steaming pot chicken soup. The soup is quite tasty, although sparse on the poultry.
A very popular option here is braised pork leg slices with cakes. The two are a perfect match, with the pork being moist and the cake being crisp.
Finally, the restaurant proffers a good pork and cabbage soup in a bronze pot - an ideal finish to a meal here. The average cost is 40 yuan a person.
Hidden hutong treasures
Nanchizi Guesthouse is tucked inside Nanchizi's Duanku Hutong near the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing. The area is full of high gray-brick walls that shape old Beijing's modern charm. The guesthouse has a canteen that has been transformed into a restaurant. The first floor is a public dining area, while the second story hosts a few private rooms.
Starters include a fresh vegetable platter served with soybean sauce, a bowl of crisp and tiny shrimp, and pancakes in which to wrap the vegetables and sauces. The veggies include fresh shallots, cucumber slices, lettuce and red bell peppers.
Cold soft-boiled fish absorb much of the sauce, and even the bones are chewable. "Fragrant mushrooms" are brined to make another tasty starter.
The place also proffers a very tender steamed mandarin fish, flavored with fresh Chinese prickly ash. Braised chicken is another winner, with its lean and tender meat.
One of the best dishes the chef makes is a lamb giblet soup with a milky white broth served in a bronze pot big enough to serve six. Another flavorsome option is the "beef tendon in golden chicken soup".
The restaurant provides a delightful traditional Beijing dim sum platter for dessert. There are mashed pea cakes, mashed kidney bean cakes and green tea jelly. There is no English-language menu. An average meal costs 100 yuan ($15) a head.
(China Daily 02/19/2011 page12)