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The hidden flavors of Beijing

By ANNA HARTLEY | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 30, 2018

My first visit to mainland China is a short one of just seven days, and I want to be able to come away feeling like I’ve tasted some real Chinese food, the stuff the locals eat. Enter Lost Plate, a small tour company that dives straight into the dense alley neighborhoods (hutongs) of the old city and visits hole-in-the-wall restaurants that visitors generally can’t find.

“Would you like a beer?” our guide Ernestina asks, offering me a can of Yanjing beer in a custom koozie. It’s only about 43 degrees out, but I accept happily. My fiance and I have just emerged from one of the many exits of the Yonghegong metro station in the northeast of the city, where Ernestina easily spotted us among the waves of locals.

Night has fallen by the time our tour group assembles. We walk away from the unlit sloping roofs of the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple, where two red, motorized tuk-tuks and their drivers are waiting for us. My fiance and I slide onto a tiny bench seat, face-to-face with a couple from California. We all wriggle down under the thick blanket as the tuk-tuk lurches to life and we zoom toward the first restaurant of the night.

Six sets of chopsticks hover over six steaming dishes. “Mix it well until the noodles are coated,” Ernestina instructs. My plate becomes a blur as I mix the hot dried noodles, a breakfast dish from Hubei province brought to us by a woman whose head barely clears the counter between our low, wooden table and the tiny kitchen behind her. The noodles are delicious and made entirely with sesame oil, which gives it a rich, smooth texture that a cheaper mix of peanut and sesame oils would not provide.

We’ve been told to expect plenty of regional dishes like this tonight, but Ernestina made a point of mentioning that there would be no rice — because most Westerners associate Chinese food so strongly with it. Historically, Beijingers have never eaten much rice. The dishes we sampled were mostly wheat-based, such as noodles, pancakes and dumplings.

“We’ll leave in two minutes!” Ernestina says, looking at her watch. Our chef waves goodbye as we hustle back outside into the cold air, and a new customer slides into one of the restaurant’s few seats.

The tuk-tuk train moves on. We chat and laugh as we zigzag through the mostly unlit alleyways that make up the hutongs. The streets are lined with old shade trees and are surprisingly quiet little patches of ordinary community life in the center of the vast city. The few cars we see are covered with protective sheets and a thick layer of autumn leaves, and people carefully weave quiet electric scooters between bicycles. As we zip down yet another narrow alleyway, we pass so close to the people walking by that I can reach out and touch their coats.

Sticking to these dense alleys is key to the success of Lost Plate tours. When the founder of the company, Ruixi Hu, moved to the capital from Chengdu, she discovered that finding good food was hard. The Internet didn’t give her the answers she was looking for. Over time, she was able to ferret out the culinary gems that she knew were hiding just around the corner, known to locals but invisible to outsiders.

Armed with these valuable addresses, Ruixi and her American husband, Brian Bergey, founded Lost Plate in 2014 and have now expanded to four cities, having added Shanghai, Chengdu and Xian.

Restaurant Two announces itself with a small chalkboard hanging from a tree, which I’m told says “Mongolian barbecue.” At the back of the room, a group of young men grow rowdy, raising toasts with small glasses of clear liquor. Plates with slices of eggplant, onion, bell pepper, lamb and pork belly are arranged next to the huge hot plate in the center of our table.

Legend plays a large role in any food culture, and China’s is no exception. As our hot plate heats up, Ernestina explains the story of a long-gone Mongolian soldier who was fed up with army slop and began to cook his own meals using his metal helmet as a hot plate — the first Mongolian barbecue.

In reality, other than the lamb we’re frying, Mongolian barbecue has little to do with Mongolian cuisine, but it has undoubtedly been embraced by the Chinese. The first Mongolian barbecue restaurants, as we know them today, were opened in Taipei in the early 1950s before spreading back over to the mainland.

A large exhaust fan hangs down from the ceiling, obscuring my view of Gene, who is helping Ernestina distribute the vegetables and meat on the grilling surface. We pluck fried pieces of meat and vegetables from the hot plate, then coat them in a mixture of delicious spices and bread crumbs before popping them into our mouths. The black hot plate is scarcely empty when we are given the move-on notice. More food awaits in another pocket of the city.

The large, deep-fried meat buns we have at Restaurant Three are as large as a man’s fist. My pie has a thick, crunchy outer shell of fried dough filled with tender, slow-cooked beef, scallions and the restaurant’s secret mix of spices. Many recipes also call for pork, but this restaurant is halal. It is also apparently one of two left in the capital that make the buns in the labor-intensive traditional style.

This restaurant is loud and busy, but our table becomes momentarily quiet as we are lost in appreciation of our buns. Ernestina passes around small glasses of baiju, a clear and very strong liquor made, in this case, from sorghum, that warms our bellies even further.

Even if I knew where I was at this point, I wouldn’t tell you. For the Lost Plate tours to work, the restaurants have to stay local, and we have been asked to keep tonight’s itinerary to ourselves.

As a former tour guide and current tourist, I appreciate this approach but it may be unnecessary. Although the Chinese visit the rest of the world in enormous numbers, the reverse doesn’t appear to be true. It may just be a particularly quiet period, but we saw only a few dozen other Westerners during our week-long stay. In any case, the restaurants we’ve seen tonight are happy to have our business, but as far as I can see, not dependent on it.

After the dumplings, we have delicate spring pancakes in a family restaurant that is quiet after the dinner rush.

Dessert is a surprisingly delicious cup of sour fermented milk and sweet red beans at another small establishment, whose walls are papered with handwritten thank-you notes, like thousands of colorful scales. We finish with pints of beer at a trendy, dimly lit, Chinese-owned brewery.

By the end of the night, as Ernestina herds us through the winding unlit alleys to the closest metro station, we’re all in high spirits. We’ve covered a lot of ground — geographically and culturally — and eaten very well indeed.

Food fries on the hot plate at another stop. Mongolian barbecue has little to do with Mongolian cuisine, but it has been embraced by the Chinese.
PHOTO BY ANNA HARTLEY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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