Category Archives: restaurants

Soupy Blood and Gust

“Why do Americans eat potatoes with nearly everything? It’s not right!” A Chinese teaching colleague blinked at me a few times. “I mean, when I lived in the US, I grew to hate potatoes at first and never wanted to look at them again. Eventually, I realized I had no choice and just learned to like them.”

I smiled. “First, I don’t know why. Second, a question. Why do lots of Chinese people always eat rice with their meals?”

This colleague then laughed. “OK. Fair point.”

This conversation happened many years ago. I lived in Wujin at the time. There is, however, a reason why I still remember this exchange. When a person is actively trying to assimilate into a foreign culture, two of the most immediate challenges are language and food. My colleague essentially was saying “I had to learn to like potatoes if I ever was to appreciate American food.” There is something similar that occurs to some westerners when they move to China. Some might find a few Chinese dishes culturally offensive due to organ meat and animal parts they are not used to. To appreciate Chinese food, sometimes, one has to turn these cultural sensitivities off.

I recently did this when some Chinese friends invited me out to lunch. They had a “free” coupon for a place called 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo. It’s relatively new and on one of the upper levels of Injoy / Wuyue Plaza downtown. Actually, it may be occupying the space that used to be home to Summer and then a Vietnamese pho noodle shop. Alright then, so it’s new. What’s the culturally challenging part? It specializes 毛血旺 máo xuè wàng. Also, I quickly learned that when you feed those three characters in Baidu Translate, you get some hilarious Chinglish.

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No, mao xue wang is not hairy blood. No strand, root, or follicle of hair is involved! This is one of those instances where it’s best to write the name in Pinyin without tone markers and call that the dish’s English name. Okay, so what is it?

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It’s a soup originally from Chongqing. Oh, and by the way, it’s extremely spicy. The above photo was taken from a soup that had been intentionally toned down at my request. So, instead of “extremely spicy,” it was just “very, very spicy.” I can’t imagine how mao xue wang in it’s natural, highly nuclear state would make me weep and sob with each bite. Spicy red peppers are not culturally challenging. What is? The two signature ingredients.

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Tripe! This is hardly the first time I have eaten animal stomach. That is just merely the cost of living in China for years and trying to make friends with the locals. However, I have always struggled on how to describe tripe’s flavor. So, I consulted a fellow foodie — who is a rather intrepid and fearless gastronaut (inside joke). He said, “I don’t know. Tripe has always been more about its chewy texture than it’s flavor.” Right, he is. So, what’s the other challenging ingredient in mao xue wang?

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Blood! Congealed blood shows up in a lot of Chinese cuisine. Once you get past the very American icky ick ick gross! factor, it basically tastes like a slightly metalic tofu. One of the greater things about mao xue wang is the other ingredients. This soup can be customized, but it typically also has seafood in it.

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You can find shrimp, squid, fish, vegetables floating or submerged in this soup. So, if you are out to lunch with Chinese friends, and you don’t want to eat blood and guts, simply pick out the stuff you do like. This restaurant offers a variety of side dishes. One of those was very welcome to my inner American.

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Cheesy potatoes! Oh, what a comfort food and an emotional crutch while eating adventuresome! At any rate, did I enjoy the totality of my lunch at 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo? Yes. Would I eat there again? Also yes, but with one caveat. This is the sort of place that you share with other people. It’s not meant for solo dining. It’s more of a communal experience, and the restaurant itself caps tables at four people and no more than that.

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While the place is relatively new, it has seemed to drawn a crowd. This might mean, depending on when you visit, there could be a bit of a wait to be seated.

Great Pastrami at Tock’s Montreal Deli

When I raised the sandwich to my mouth,  it fell apart into a disgusting pile of steak, mayonnaise, corn kernels, and more. I glared at the mess on my plate.  I tried to quell my mounting rage, because — well — sane people don’t lose their minds over hoagies. Also, I shouldn’t have gotten so excited that a new sandwich place opened at Xinbei Wanda Plaza. I set myself up for disappointment.  In the end, I told myself that this is normal for a Chinese city like Changzhou.  The Dragon City is not Manhattan, Brooklyn, or New Jersey. Jewish delis do not exist here.

One does, however, exist in Shanghai, and to say it’s awesome is an understatement. They smoke their own meat and make their own pastrami. In Canada, this would be called “Montreal smoked meat,” but it’s essentially the same thing as pastrami. Montreal does have a legacy of Jewish immigration that also brought kosher deli traditions, and that’s what gives Tock’s — on the other side of the world in China — unique character.

Obviously, the pastrami is the signature menu item, here. It’s featured a few different sandwiches and platters. There are three versions of this cured and brined beef, too, and the differences depend on how much fat you are willing to consume. So, there is a lean, a medium, and a fatty version that you can specify. The times I have eaten there, the waitstaff have always recommended “medium” as the most popular among regular customers. That’s what I had, and it was just perfect, and pastrami really is my favorite lunch meat of all time.  It’s one of the few thing I actually miss about living in New Jersey. I guess you can say that’s also why this deli really was “love at first bite” for me.

As for the two other specialties available, there is smoked duck and smoked chicken. The smoked duck is just glorious. The resulting sandwich was just meat and bread, but the flavor of the meat, piled high and served warm, could give Tock’s pastrami a run for it’s money. While very good, the duck here will always come in second, however.

The smoked chicken is in a distant third. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good, but it just does not have the strong, distinctive flavor of pastrami or duck. Tock’s has a menu option where you can have two different meats within one sandwich. It would be best to pair the chicken with the pastrami or the duck. Pairing the duck and the pastrami would be a bad idea, since you would have two unique, complex flavors clashing with each other.

Tock’s also has poutine. This is a food nearly all my Canadian friends are passionate about. In other English languages cultures, we would call these “wet fries” — fried potatoes smothered with a topping. In that regard, I guess you could argue that “chili fries” would be an American version of poutine. In Canada, this delicious bit of junk food has gravy and cheese curds as basic toppings that could be built upon. Tock’s provides this, but they also have versions that include chopped smoked meat. You can either order a large portion of whatever poutine preference, or you can pay extra and have your side of fries jazzed up beside your sandwich.

I have always left Tock’s stuffed and satisfied. Every time I go there, or some of the other great food places in Shanghai, it gives me the patience to persevere through some of the more blundering attempts you might find in Changzhou start-up sandwich places. That’s not to say Changzhou is bad; I live here and it’s my point of reference. You can find similar experiences in other smaller-sized Chinese cities. In short, Tock’s is absolutely worth a stop while you are visiting  Shanghai and conducting other business.

Tock’s Montreal Deli can be found in The Bund. It is walking distance from the East Nanjing Road subway station, which services Line 2 and Line 11.  It can be found on Henan Road.

Cheese Enchiladas at Peter’s

In one of his many videos, professional skateboarder and all around legend Tony Hawk once pointed out how Mexican food lowers in quality as distance from the Mexican boarder increases.However, I noticed that same could be said for the state of Tex Mex cuisine and finding it outside North America in general. It seems like a gamble in if you are traveling through China. I thought about this recently while in Wuxi.  Currently, I know of only two restaurants in that city offering anything that remotely looks like it comes from Mexico or Texas. I have only been to one of those two.

Peter’s Tex-Mex Grill can be found in Wuxi’s southern Binhu District. It’s in a shopping mall overlooking Linhu Lake and the large Wuxi Grand Theater stands right next door. This is on the southern end of the city’s subway’s Line 1, and is in the greater vicinity of Jiangnan University 江南大学. Actually, it’s a bit of a hike from the nearest metro station, Cultural Palace 文化宫.  I found the restaurant by sheer accident. I had come to this part of Wuxi because I had never been here before and was up for a bit of aimless wandering.

So, how was the food? Since I hadn’t really had anything vegetarian in a while, I opted for the rather simple cheese enchiladas.  Honestly, it was a bit of a gloopy mess. To be fair, this dish can be a bit of a gloopy mess in America, too.  It’s basically just queso cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla smothered in a mild sauce. Small ramekins of refried  beans, rice, and sour cream came with the dish. All in all, just average, and that can be just okay in China, sometimes. It actually tasted like enchiladas!  It’s certainly better than anything in Changzhou that is currently calling itself “Mexican.” There was a chain called Tacos that was just, well, not very good.  It was Mexican in name only.

I would return to Peter’s, but it’s just not in a good location for an out of town guy like me. Wuxi, however, looks to be building a subway line out here, and with the Grand Theater as a cultural attraction, that is probably a very good idea.

 

The Best Wuhan Craft Beer in Changzhou

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Here is something you will likely never hear an expat say: “Oh my god, do you know where I can find Tsingtao on draft? What about Tiger?” That’s because both are cheap and extremely common. Finding those beers is not a challenge. Let’s put it this way: No foreigner squeals for joy when they find cans of Harbin at a supermarket. Quality craft beer is another story, and downtown Changzhou recently gained a new bar that sells unique and quality draft beer.

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Bubble Lab is a well known, famous microbrewery in Wuhan. About two months ago, they opened a new bar near the Zhonglou Injoy Mall. This is in the Future City shopping complex next door. The chief difference between this bar and it’s parent location is that the beers are not brewed in Changzhou. They are made in Wuhan and shipped here. They have multiple taps and serve a wide variety. They have, for example, two stouts at the moment; one has a slight vanilla flavor, and the other has hints of coffee. There are many different types of IPAs to be had, as well as typically less bitter fare like pilsner and lager. The food is also enjoyable.

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Their cheeseburger is fairly simple, and that is not a bad thing. Yet, there are a few things that can even wreck a simple burger: bad quality beef, dry textures, and over or under cooking it. Bubble Lab’s burger avoids all of this. The meat patty is very juicy — definitely not overcooked and chewy. Truth be told, it was so juicy that it was a bit of a mess to eat. That is also not a criticism; messy burgers are delicious if done right, and this is one I would order again.

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Bubble Lab also offers fish and chips. You don’t see the fries in the above picture because they are under the fillets. Now, this should be said: this is not the type of fish and chips an Aussie or a Brit may be used to. That’s usually batter dipped and deep fried. Bubble Lab’s fish actually tastes a bit German. By that, I mean it tastes like somebody took fish and prepared it the same way you would with a schnitzel cutlet, and that involves bread crumbs and parsley. Again, this is not criticism. Not all fried fish and potato meals needs to be proper British fish and chips. I found this enjoyable, but then again, I am not somebody who is homesick and from the United Kingdom or Australia. It should also be noted that right now, their menu is fairly simple and small. Yet, new things will likely be added in the months to come.

All in all, I am very happy to see Bubble Lab in Changzhou. The city center needed another western style bar and restaurant.  Ever since Bellahaus went out of business, eating and drinking options seemed confined to Summer and a few other places. Plus, with so many Wuhan craft beers on tap, you can easily say Bubble Lab offers something you can’t find elsewhere in Changzhou.

This post originally appeared on Real Changzhou. 

The Buffet at Marco Polo

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As hotels go, The Marco Polo is not an imposing or a large structure. This is by design, as the management hopes for a more intimate, personable atmosphere. A smaller scale of operation means more time staff can focus and giving quality customer service and care. Like other western hotels in Changzhou, there is a self service dinner buffet.

The management knows this, and they have tried to figure out what can make their restaurant stand out. The answer was a recently added iron skillet barbecue. This is personalized to each table with a heating element. Diners are served raw cuts of beef, chicken, and more to cook themselves. The concept is very similar to local paper BBQ places, but the ingredients are of higher quality.

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In truth, it’s best to treat the new personal BBQ as an appetizer to the buffet itself.  There are tried and true elements that you can find in other hotels around Changzhou. For example, there is a hot grill with a choice of meat and gourmet sauces. The quality here is what you would expect from a luxury hotel.

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There is another similarity: sushi and sashimi. The cook here is a professional trained in Japan, and the sashimi is freshly cut to order. This is not a “buffet” aspect of the dining experience. You tell the guy what you want from what’s chilled and on display, and he delivers. There are also freshly made rolls to pick and choose from — along with the standard condiments of pickled ginger, soy sauce, and wasabi.

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There are hot food service stations for both western and Chinese cuisines. However, there was one I found myself wanting to return to, and quite often. Without proper discipline, I would have made myself an outright pig with heaping plates. I really, really liked Marco Polo’s chicken curry. There is a reason for this; Changzhou only has two Indian restaurants: Kaffa in Wujin, and Indian Kitchen in Xinbei. There is also a Pakistani meal delivery service based off of Wechat called “CHILL MaRo.” Marco Polo’s buffet is not a South Asian restaurant, but they do offer a delicious curry dish in a town that doesn’t not have a lot of options when it comes to this sort of food.

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The Marco Polo Hotel is located very close to Dinosaur Park. This is the time of year where the Spring Festival lanterns are full on display there. A family could easily pair visiting these colorful sights with having a delicious dinner nearby. This is especially true for those in Wujin who need an excuse to go north for an evening.

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A Newb’s Introduction to Dining and Nightlife in Jiangyin

img_20161211_193844While visiting Jiangyin either on business or as a tourist, there are a few western restaurants to consider eating at. While the city is smaller than Changzhou and belongs to Wuxi, Jiangyin is highly developed and quite modernized. There is one spot in the downtown area that seems to be central to dining and nightlife. Yijian Road has a lot of bars and restaurants.

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The biggest draw in the area seems to be a German establishment, Hofbrauhaus and a few others.

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While Yijian Road seems to be a culinary hub, these are not the only places to eat when visiting Jiangyin. Take, for example, St. Marco. This European eatery is just down Chaoyang Road from Huangshanhu Park. That park, and the others near in close proximity, are the more well known Jiangyin attractions. People on a day trip from Changzhou could pair visiting those parks with eating at St. Marco. As stated earlier, these are likely not the only decent places to eat in this city, but this was only my third visit, and I’m still figuring out where things are there.

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Cross posted from Real Changzhou.