Category Archives: Restaurants

Western Breakfast at CF Cafe

There are two reasons why I would ever eat Pizza Hut’s food. They can receive orders in English if you call them for delivery. Also, they do scrambled eggs and French toast breakfasts up until 10:30. Given Pizza Hut’s wide reach, that’s highly convenient if you are traveling through unfamiliar places in China. In Changzhou, however, there are some places that offer a western styled breakfast with higher quality food. CF Cafe is one of those establishments.

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The food here has always been of high quality. Their cakes, breads, sandwiches, and pizza are all worth the trip. However so are their breakfasts, and the prices are roughly the same as Pizza Hut. As implied earlier, the quality of their offerings are much, much better.

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This is scrambled eggs with salmon. It came with a fried tomato and a salad with Japanese style dressing. This cost about 45 RMB. For me, salmon is a very rich-tasting fish. There is only so much of it I can eat in one sitting. The portion here was just about the right amount. While I enjoyed this, I liked the next dish even more.

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The baked beans and the tomato makes me think this is a more British styled breakfast than American, but that that’s really splitting hairs. So this is basicaly scrambled eggs with spinach and mushrooms. Other sides include a breakfast sausage and potatoes. This runs about 55 RMB. That’s roughly similar to what I normally pay at Pizza Hut. Maybe it’s 5 RMB more, but I will gladly play the difference.

These two options are not the only breakfast choices CF Cafe has to offer. However, this category of food is just another indication of the quality you can find here, whether you are seeking breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

CF Cafe is located in Taihu Road in Xinbei and is across the street from the media tower and complex. It’s walking distance from Wanda Plaza and it’s BRT station.

A Mysterious Chinese Fragrant Pot

A common mistake some foreigners make is thinking their Chinese friends are all experts when it comes to their native cuisine. I will admit that I have been guilty of that in the past. There are many errors to this way of thinking. For example, which Chinese food? It’s a huge country with many different regional cuisines. Once you factor in local delicacies, you can live a lifetime of trying a new dish everyday and still not have gotten to everything China has to offer an adventuresome eater.

In the end, some dishes are harder to research than others — even in Chinese. The restaurant 筋牛坐筋头巴脑香锅米饭 Jīn niú zuò Jīn tóu bā nǎo xiāng guō mǐfàn has been very difficult to figure out. Let’s start with the name, as half of it is easy to miss-translate into Chinglish. Following the rule of translate the easy stuff and leave the specifics in Chinese, I would call it Jin Tou Ba Fragrant Pot and Rice — or just Jin Tou Ba as a short form. The official sign outside the place says “Ribs, Head, and Brain.” I don’t feel comfortable saying that, so for me, it will be just Jin Tou Ba going forward. The other option would be the place’s actual Chinese name, Jin Niu Zuo.

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The frustrating thing is I really like the food here, but none of the Chinese people I ask know anything about this restaurant or the style of food. That’s weird, because every time I go here, the place is busy. I even asked my students at Hohai, and even they didn’t know. Hohai University is national institution and draws students from all over China. I often joke that while I am their English teacher, they are my Chinese cultural instructors. To use an extremely Chinese expression, it’s a win-win situation. Not one of my students said, “Oh, I know Jin Tou Ba!”

Okay, so enough of the personal mystery. What is the food actually like? The closest comparisons would be malatang 麻辣烫 and malaxiangguo 麻辣香锅. Even that comparison is not entirely accurate. Malatang is a soup, and Malaxiangguo I think is a spicy stir fry. The point of comparison with all three involves self service.

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Jin Tou Ba has a similar set up, but it results in a beef stew. A diner walks in, grabs a bowl, tongs, and selects from meat, vegetables, and dumplings. Then, they must choose from a series of pots of braised meat. A lot of those choices are organ meat like tripe, but the first pot is essentially braised beef. The woman behind the counter weighs your selection, gives you the price, and then asks your preferred spiciness level. I tend choose weakest option above “not spicy,” but you can get Sichuan levels of heat if that is desired.

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The quality of the food is very good. Jin Tou Ba has become a reliable and convenient lunch or supper option for me, as of late. The braised beef has always been tender and not over cooked and chewy. All of that is served with a simple side of white rice. However, I like that they have a hot pot condiment station. I always prefer mixing minced garlic and scallions into sesame seed paste (think, tahini).

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Changzhou currently has two of these places. One is on the pedestrian street at Xinbei Wanda Plaza. The other is in the basement of Injoy Plaza downtown. My average meal here has averaged somewhere between 40 to 50 RMB, but I have always left full and satisfied.

I still haven’t figured out what this food actually is. I have now sort of given up on figuring this puzzle out. It comes more from a memory of my mother. She had been experimenting in the kitchen, and I had been poking her creation tentatively with a fork. “Stop analyzing your food, Rich, and eat.” Sometimes, I just need to do exactly that.

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Papa John’s Opens in Xinbei

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Papa John’s is an American corporate pizza chain, and it can easily be compared to Pizza Hut and Mr. Pizza in China. However, it does not have the foothold and market presence. In Changzhou, for example, Pizza Hut is extremely easy to find, and their many locations can be as numerous as KFC. The Korean Mr. Pizza comes in a distant second with number of locations. Papa John’s is now entering the corporate pizza game in this city with a new location in Xinbei.

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The place recently opened in a newly remodeled and small shopping center up Tongjiang Road in Xinbei. It is right next to a KFC and a hotpot place. You could say, perhaps, that it’s in between Wanda and Monkey King Pizza, which brings up another point.

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Cheesy Sausages
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Super thin crust with Papa John’s trademark pepperoncini

Should places like Monkey King, OK Koala, and CF Cafe — local Xinbei places that also serve pizza — be afraid of the competition? Not really. Koala serves bar food, and CF Cafe and Monkey King are more high end. Food nerds like myself will always prefer those places because of the originality they bring to their cuisine. Papa John’s menu is more of a reminder of Pizza Hut and Mr. Pizza. The prices are roughly the same, too. Corporate pizza, however, is usually better than some of the locally owned Chinese places who may sweeten or spice things up when they absolutely shouldn’t. At any rate, it’s always good to have more dining options than less. So, in that spirit, welcome to Changzhou, Papa John’s.

Getting to Know Milo Bar 8

For awhile, it seemed like Thuringia was the only thing remotely western at Wujin Wanda Plaza. This is, of course, if you discount the fast food of Dairy Queen, KFC, Burger King, and Starbucks. Oh, and Pizza Hut, too. Even then, that really isn’t saying much, because Thuringia is a chain that likes to call itself German but fails miserably in the execution.

The times I have eaten there in the past, salads seemed skimpy and glazed with sugar water. Their sausages were of poorer quality that the ones that can easily be bought at Metro — and the slogan, You can make much better food at home will never inspire you to fling money at an eatery trying to be foriegn in China. Somebody from Eastern Europe once complained Thuringia’s borscht tasted like Campbell’s tomato soup from a can. Wujin Wanda had better, at one point. Right after the mall opened years ago, there was a place called Erdinger, and the food was decent. However, it closed because it never attracted consistent customers — leaving Thuringia to foist it’s substandard cuisine onto hungry mall shoppers.

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Recently, I found what might be a credible alternative at Wujin Wanda: Milo Bar 8. I don’t know how long it has been open, because I don’t live in the southern part of Changzhou anymore. Today, I went to Wujin to get some eBike maintenance done, and I thought to reacquaint myself with the area and see how some it has changed since 2014 and 15.

Milo Bar 8 seems to be a mixture of a restaurant and a bar with live music entertainment. I haven’t actually seen any musicians performing, because I went in the middle of the day for a late lunch. But they had all the equipment to serenade diners in a cozy, somewhat posh looking setting. As for it’s location, it’s located on the ground floor and at the north end of the mall. The entrance is on the outside of the building, not the inside. So, how was the food? I felt only peckish and cheap. I very much wanted to be a tightwad (I had just doled out 1000 RMB for 10 new bike batteries), so I opted only for two chicken related appetizers.

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This was a slightly spicy chicken and cheese combo on top of garlic bread. It rain for about 38 RMB — for one piece of toast. Two other options include garlic shrimp as well as salmon and avocado. I found myself enjoying the cheesy chicken thingie. In a way, it was sort of a nostalgia moment for New Jersey. I haven’t really seen actual garlic bread around Changzhou all that much. While I thought this was pricey, I would order it again.  I would probably confuse the non-English speaking waitress by want two or three on one plate. Then, there was this…

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The menu listed this as “chicken burritos.” The “burrito” concept here is close, so I’m not going to argue with the restaurant. Chinese food has something similar in concept called 薄饼卷肉 Báobǐng juǎn ròu. It’s basically meat rolled up in thin flatbread,

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So, this is definitely not Mexican food, but as a sort-of international fusion dish, it works. This was definitely much better than anything I ever ate at Taco’s at Wujin Injoy, and that place DID call itself Mexican (and quite wrongly, too. Who puts mayonnaise into a beef soft taco and calls it sour cream?). The spiciness seems to come, here, from Chinese green peppers. It wasn’t too hot, and I would order this again, too.

Both appetizers intrigued me enough to want to try other things on the menu some other time. They do have steaks, a Caesar salad, and other things that look more western than Chinese. Some items are absurdly expensive. For instance, Milo Bar 8 has a slab of meat that will run you 1288 RMB. I neither kidding nor being sarcastic.

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Dear God, that has to be a typo! What is it? Super select Kobe beef marinated in the preserved sweat of Elvis Presley and sprinkled with the dandruff of unicorns??? I would NEVER order this.

To be honest, the service was extremely slow, but I will be forgiving of that because I walked into the place in the downtime between lunch and dinner. Many places in China lock their doors at that time. The hostess actually invited me in as I curiously flipped through the menu. The other thing is this: I live in Xinbei, now. I would cross town for Kaffa and Jagerwirt on occasion. For Milo Bar 8, I definitely wouldn’t.  Maybe I would if I was in Wujin on other business, like I was today? However, it’s on my radar now.  Yet, I also know this; I know how excited I would have been if I found this when I actually lived in the area a few years ago.

 

Don Chicken R.I.P.

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When you are an American expat abroad, your perspectives of food change with the things you experience first hand. This is natural — you get exposed to things you normally wouldn’t see back in The States. For example, Americans like to think we own fried chicken, that we created it, and we do it best. It’s just not debatable. In fact, I would challenge somebody to walk into a dive bar in Georgia, Mississippi, or Appalachia where people have been drinking all night; tell those guys that Koreans can do fried chicken just as well as their grandmothers. It’s not going to end well.

But the truth is: chicken is a robust part of Korean culinary culture — at least internationally, and especially internationally in China. Yeah, KFC is a fried chicken phenomenon in China, but so are the Korean versions of that fast food staple. It’s more than that, actually. There is a Korean chain throughout China that focused more on baking chicken then frying it, and it was pretty damn awesome. I am speaking, of course, about Don Chicken.

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Don Chicken did a few dishes really well. One was baked chicken and cheese. It was beautiful simplicity — you had baked chicken smothered in cheese. That’s it. That’s all. The chicken was so tender and so juicy. Only, it seems a lot of people, myself included, didn’t seem to fully latch onto Don Chicken’s Xinbei presence. It was on a side street near Wanda Plaza and Hohai University. The place now looks like this.

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At first glance, this can be a gut and remodel situation. A lot of Starbucks went through that over the last year. Monkey King in Wujin went through that a few years ago. Only, this really does not look like that. Look at the marquee. The name Don Chicken has been removed. Trully, though, I am at a loss about why this place could not put butts into seats behind tables. It’s in between Wanda and a university. The foot traffic here is fairly large. However, every time I went here, the tables were constantly empty. If it can’t get traffic in this location, I am hard pressed to say where in Changzhou it could.

And now, it seems gone.

Istanbul Cafeteria is NOT Istanbul Restaurant

Unfortunately, whether it is comments on this blog, Wechat messages, conversations at a bar, I have gotten this a lot over the past year or so:

I read a post you did about eating doner kebabs and Turkish food, and I tried to find the place. It doesn’t exist! Google Maps had me wandering all over Xinbei Central Park!

Google and Baidu Maps sometimes can’t be trusted. I have had a long history of looking for things those apps say exist but actually do not when you investigate further. However, to people relatively new to Changzhou and China in general, they may not realize about their cell phone maps. So, allow me to unpack the issue.

Istanbul Restaurant exists. I know this. I had lunch there, recently. It’s on Taihu Road 太湖路 in Xinbei. It’s walking distance from Wanda Plaza’s BRT station and is near the media tower. The exterior looks like this….

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Instanbul Cafeteria was a kebab stand this restaurant tried to open in Xinbei Central Park. Both shared the similar food items, but he shack location in Xinbei Central Park had a much more limited menu. For a number of reasons I do not know, Istanbul Cafeteria shut down and closed shop. That was more than a year ago. However, the shack is still in the park awaiting a new renter.

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However, it should be noted that Istanbul Restaurant and Istanbul Cafeteria are NOT the same thing. You can find the restaurant on the Chinese language Baidu Maps, but it’s not on English language Google Maps. However, Istanbul Cafeteria still appears on these maps when you search for the restaurant. I know, it can easily be confusing, but trust me, Turkish Food does exist in Changzhou, and it is worth finding.

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A New Take on Steak

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When my father came to visit a few weeks ago, he was pretty burnt out on Chinese food. Before stepping off the train in Changzhou, he had spent about three weeks traveling the Middle Kingdom and saw sights like Lhasa, Tibet, the Mekong River, and more. He ate a lot of noodles. He ate a lot of rice. He had his fair share of dumplings, and he told me he had more than enough.

That posed a bit of a problem.  The day he arrived here, he settled into Hohai University’s guest center and asked, “Where are we going for lunch? I am starving.” Given that he was dead set against Chinese food, I was at a quandary. Where would we eat? I figured the two of us would walk over to Wanda Plaza, and the rest would eventually play out. McDonald’s or KFC would have been an a last resort. We ended up on the fourth floor, at a place called Tom’s Steak Cafeteria.

 

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The food was not good at all. In fact, I really hated it; I hide to pick chucks of non-chewable gristle out of my mouth. However, as my dad and I ate and caught up on family news, there was another thought in the back of my head. Places like Tom’s are pretty standard, and dismal, attempts at western cuisine. There are lots of places in China that try to do steak this way: sizzle a thin, very cheap slab of beef on a metal hot plate, crack open an egg, and serve spaghetti with a type of tomato sauce that likely came out of a can.

If an expat has lived in Changzhou for quite awhile, they will know steak places like this were the majority options a few years ago, if you wanted to eat something remotely western. Yes, there are fancy hotel restaurants and places like Jagerwirt that do steak well, but that is more of a fine dining experience and can be rather pricey — especially if you are eating on a university teacher’s salary and not an engineer’s or business person’s. However, times change. There seems to be a new trend going on Changzhou.

 

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Tiny, affordable steak places are popping up in malls like Wanda and Injoy. These places take a profoundly different approach than the standard Chinese steak restaurants. Think of these places as high-end snack bars. They don’t use hot metal plates. The sides of corn kernels and cold, faux-Italian noodles are gone, too. And seriously, good riddance. These places tend to strip away everything in the name of sheer simplicity. It’s actually kind of beautiful, from a culinary minimalist perspective.

 

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You pick your steak from a display case. You have a choice several different types of cuts. They weigh your meat and charge you by the gram. You also specify how red or not-red you want your meat. They cook it on a grill, season it, and serve it to you with a simple salad.

I can’t speak for the other places in this regard. The pictures are from Niuhaha at Xinbei’s Wanda Plaza. So, if a place is going to serve steak with very few embellishments, how was the quality of meat? I mean, the simplicity puts an extra emphasis on the steak itself, because there are no distractions like a pile of corn or a bunch of flavorless noodles? If the meat is bad, then the meal itself will fail miserably.

 

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What I had at Niuhaha was very, very good. They use imported Australian beef. It was cooked well with the right amount of juiciness and the amount of pepper and other seasonings was just about right. Now, is this the same as getting a steak at a place like Monkey King or Chocolate’s? No. Of course not. Don’t be freaking silly. That is steak as fine dining, and I will still go back those places when I want a sit down meal with friends and colleagues or am on a date. This is, as I said earlier, more of a cheaper fast-food approach.

I tried Niuhaha after I took my dad to Pudong International in Shanghai and said goodbye. My father has since returned to America. However, as I was enjoying my steak salad afterwards, something else dawned on me. Across the way, on Wanda’s fourth floor, was Tom’s Steak Cafeteria. It made me think. On my father’s first day of visiting, I had so wished I said, “Hey, Dad! Let’s try that tiny steak place over there!” We would have had a more satisfying meal if I had.

Two Delicious Things at Istanbul Restaurant

Longer term readers of this blog might know two things about me: 1) Istanbul Restaurant is one of my favorite places to eat in Changzhou — even though I rarely go there, and 2) I am categorically insane about eating sandwiches. I blame New Jersey for that, because, like pizza, it’s nearly a fanatical culinary religion in the Garden State.

You can also say that maybe this is a case of like father like son. My dad also likes sandwiches very much — especially a good Philladelphia cheese steak. My dad also appreciates Greek, Turkish, and Middle Eastern food. After all, here is a man who spent his decades-long career as an educator with the US Department of Defense traveling through Europe and Asia.  So, while he has been visiting Changzhou recently to see me, taking him to Instanbul Restaurant in Xinbei was a complete no-brainer. It was the second “must go” place to drag him out for dinner.

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My dad had the iskander kebap. He ordered it by mistake. He thought he was getting standard doner kebab. Instead, he got a Turkish version of an open-faced sandwich. This includes spiced beef doner meat and a vegetables served on top of bread — which Istanbul bakes itself. You never eat an open faced sandwich with your hands. It’s meant to be consumed with a knife and fork. On the side, there is a thick pool of yogurt. This is for glorious dipping purposes. I have had this dish before and have privately recommended it to others in the past.

As for me, I was a little surprised by the menu. Perhaps it’s because I don’t eat here as often as I would like to? Every time I visit this place, the menu is always slightly different. There always seems to be something new and something missing. This is always a positive. It shows the owners and management not only want to keep what their customers like, but also try new things and eliminate the things that do not draw interest. This is something I deeply respect. The last time I visited this place, they had introduced felafel. But, it was only as a sort of appetizer that had thousand island salad dressing as dipping sauce. This time, I noticed they were offering these spicy chick pea balls as a wrap. I found that alluring, but something novel-to-me caught my attention: a köfte styled hamburger.

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Köfte is a Turkish meatball. It is a blend of meats, and depending on where you eat it and who made it, it can involve ground beef, lamb, or veal all mingled together. Istanbul serves their own blend between the same bread they use for their doner kebabs, and when it is combined veggies and a yogurt sauce, each bite tastes better than the last. This is a credible alternative to a doner at Istanbul if a patron wanted to eat something like a hamburger that had some shreds of Turkish identity.

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Seriously, Istanbul Restaurant is the only Turkish restaurant in Changzhou. They could very easily rest on that as a “novelty act.” They currently have no competition when it comes to the cuisine they serve. And yet, they still experiment. They still edit their menu. They try new things.  In that regard, I hope the köfte hamburger stays.

Istanbul Restaurant is on Taihu Road and is between Wanda Plaza and the Changzhou Media Tower. 

Amee Toast 凹蜜土司 at Xinbei Wanda

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I am always on the look out for Chinese food that is unintentionally friendly towards western eaters. I like to call it “unintentional fusion.” The people creating the food are not actively going, “Hey, likes mix western food with Chinese.” No, its Chinese food that just happens to be similar to some types of North American or European cuisine. I recently ran into something intriguing on the Xinbei Wanda pedestrian street. It’s a place called Amee Toast 凹蜜土司 Āo mì tǔsī. It’s brand new, as it just opened.

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The name loosely translates as “concave honey toast.” It’s a thick slab of toasted bread that has been hollowed out and filled with meat and vegetables. I showed a picture of one to a friend who is also a professional chef, and she said, “Oh, it’s a coffin sandwich.” She’s lived in Taiwan, and a coffin sandwich is a Taiwanese specialty. Only, those involve a creamy soup on the inside. What’s over at Wanda is more of a Mainland China version of that type of sandwich.

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So, how was it? I tried two of Amee’s offerings, a bacon sandwich and a black pepper chicken one. Both were served with sliced and cooked mushrooms.  When I say bacon, Brits, Canadians, and Americans should not get their hopes up. It’s Chinese bacon. That’s well and fine. A condiment in the sandwich tasted a little like the sweet chilli dipping sauce you might find served with appetizers at a Thai restaurant. The black pepper chicken was okay. As a whole, the sandwiches here raged from 18 to 28 RMB. Now, would I go back? Yes, there are a few others I want to try, but this is your basic mall food, and it really is hard to compete with the shwarma-like roujiamo food shack nearby, which is my favorite place to eat at Wanda. This place also treats toast as a sweet desert — some with burnt cheese, and others with blueberry jam and other fruits.

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There is something else I found that seemed interesting. This, like the Mr. Potato next to it, looks like a chain. Yet, after searching, even with the Chinese name, I turned up next to nothing. All I could find was an article about an Amee Toast in Wuxi, which claims to be the first of it’s kind in China. I have seen one in Wuxi; it was in the Chong’an area downtown. So, if Changzhou has one now, this could be the beginning of a new snack food chain.

Five Good Pizza Places in Changzhou

One of the things I feared most, when leaving New Jersey for China, was going through pizza withdrawal. Yes, I was actually dumb enough to ponder, “I wonder if I can actually find pizza in China.” Stupid, I know, and my fears were completely unfounded. There is very good pizza to be had in Changzhou. Some places are not new to the old timers who have spent a few years here. But, those new to Changzhou may not yet be in the know. Especially with English teachers coming and going on one year contracts, there will always be somebody relatively new to this city. So, here is a rundown of five places to get good pizza in Changzhou. This is not a “best of” list nor should the order be construed as a ranking. Consider this as just five recommendations of places from a pizza snob.

Monkey King

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This is a place that is partly owned by an Italian. And trust me, he is a very, very damned good chef. He creates the menu, concocts the dishes, and runs the kitchen. The pizza here would satisfy a guy from New Jersey. The crust is thin and crispy. If I had to complain about something, it would be that sometimes the crust can be a little over cooked. However, everything else is near perfection. Monkey King has two locations. One in Wujin near Yancheng, and the other in Xinbei, near Candle’s Steakhouse.

Istanbul Restaurant

Istanbul's delicious, but slightly oblong pizza.
Istanbul’s delicious, but slightly oblong pizza.

I know. It’s a Turkish place. However, Turkish cuisine has pide, which is basically Turkey’s version of pizza. It features a thin crust that is formed into a different shape, and it’s sliced into strips, but it’s the same concept as a pizza. Istanbul’s pie with doner kebab meat is highly recommended. But they have the other more standard toppings that a person might find in other shops. Istanbul Restaurant can be found in Xinbei on Taihu Road, near the media tower.

OK Koala

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I know. It’s an Australian themed bar. But the love of pizza is truly international. Koala recently hired a new chef, and the menu is currently being expanded and rewritten. Their pizza tends to go heavy on the tomato sauce, which is something many Chinese-owned pizza parlors just do not do at all. The other thing is that they sell pizza by slice. They are one of the only places I know that does that. So, you are not obligated to eat a whole pie. Sure, foreign owned hotels do by the slice, but it’s part of a buffet you are paying a lot of RMB for. You can’t just pop in for a slice and a craft beer. At Koala, you can. So, it’s highly convenient — especially if you are there one night, drinking, and want to munch on something yummy and cheaply priced. Ok Koala is in Xinbei is located near the BRT stop one shopping center north of Wanda Plaza.

The Tree Pizza

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This is a cozy little place downtown, right off of Beidajie. Tree serves a very thin crust. It is such a small nook of a place that it is easy to miss if you are not looking for it. Besides the excellent pizza, the place has a very pleasant and unique ambiance. For me, it’s almost like eating at a tiny neighborhood parlor back in Asbury Park, Neptune, or Long Branch. When compared to other places, the prices here are very, very affordable. It’s high quality at a low price.

CF Cafe

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CF Cafe is actually a high end bakery serving lots of delicious deserts. They do, however, offer varied range of lunch and dinner items including salads and sandwiches. Thin crust pizza is also on their menu. When compared to Tree or OK Koala, their pizza tends to be a bit pricey. Also, they do not serve regular toppings like pepperoni, but they do have a good five veggie pie that is perhaps one of the more vegetarian friendly options in town that’s more than just a plain cheese pizza. Like Istanbul Restaurant, CF Cafe is on Taihu Road in Xinbei. It’s across the street from Zoo Coffee and the media tower complex.