Category Archives: Restaurants

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.

Where Domino’s Pizza Is Not

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Sometimes, Baidu and other map apps are not to be trusted in China. They will say something exists when it actually doesn’t. Consider the above screenshot. It’s giving a Changzhou location for 达美乐比萨,or, as it is better known in English, Domino’s Pizza. According to the picture, it can be found in the relatively new and empty Rise Sun Manhattan Plaza in Xinbei. The above is what I like to term as a “map ghost.” If you actually go there, you will not find the American pizza chain. Nothing is there.

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Sure, the marquee says “pizza” and has the 达美乐 characters, but the place is absolutely empty and devoid of life with a bare concrete floor. So, maybe Domino’s is still in Changzhou, and maybe it’s a a different location? Map apps are quite often wrong right? I say this because two friends of mine were very hopeful, and they heard rumors of a Changzhou Domino’s from Chinese people. However, if you go by Domino’s actual Chinese website, the chances are bleak. Their store locator only lists locations in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. Not to point out the obvious, but if their website does not acknowledge a presence in Changzhou, than Domino’s Pizza is more than likely not in Changzhou.

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Wujin’s Secret Recipe is Partially MIA

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Some people loved the place, and some people didn’t care for the more fusion-oriented western dishes. However, Secret Recipe in Wujin served a special purpose. While the district is rapidly growing now and is heading on a good trajectory, expat dining options in the greater Hutang area were limited. In 2014, for example, you had Monkey King, Chocolate’s, Grandma’s Nook, and Jagerwirt. And, you had Secret Recipe in the Injoy Mall. That was it. I particularly liked the Malaysian dishes like Nasi Lamak. I also really enjoyed their curries, too.

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NASI LAMAK!!!

Recently, I was in Wujin and at the Injoy Mall. Imagine my surprise when I saw that Secret Recipe had gone missing. It looks like it’s being replaced with a BOY fashion store in progress. I lived in Wujin for two years, and their Injoy location was always a reliable option when I grew tired of Chinese or Chinese college cafeteria food. In a strange way, it feels like I am losing an old friend. However, to be honest, each time I ate there, I was one of very few butts in seats, and rent on the bottom floor of Injoy must be costly. It makes sense if this location closed because of a lack of traffic.

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A construction barrier where Secret Recipe’s shop front used to be.

But, that’s the weird thing. It’s not completely closed. They still have a display case selling their cakes. Right now, it’s like half of Wujin’s Secret Recipe disappeared. And honestly, I never ate their cakes. I went there for the Malaysian food and curry, and, at times, the “Irish” lamb shank with mashed potatoes and gravy. Irish people might go there and laugh at  its lack of Irishness, but I still enjoyed eating that dish. Though, I also know some people liked the desserts. A friend and former colleague who still lives in Wujin certainly did.

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Secret Recipe had three locations in Changzhou: Wujin, Tianning, and Xinbei. Only the Xinbei one in the Lafu supermarket remains fully intact, now. And, honestly, that one doesn’t have many “bums in chairs” either. I am existentially afraid for this restaurant on its own behalf. So, yeah, in a very silly way, I feel like I have lost a friend. But, if there has anything the last year of my life has taught me, it’s this: when you lose a close friend for whatever bullshit reason, try to make new ones. Your life will be better for it. Wujin Injoy’s Malaysian place has gone missing, but Injoy has a Thai restaurant, now. So, you can still go to that mall and still get curry. So, imagine me saying this with all the swagger I can muster: Hello, you!  You look nice! Beautiful, actually! Do you have a papaya salad?

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A Non-Salad Vegetarian Dining Option

 

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Back in America, there are vegetarian restaurants that can duplicate the taste and texture of most meat dishes by using soy, tempeh, and other bean-based protein staples. So, as you can imagine, there were and still are such things as faux sausages, fake cold cuts, imitation chicken, and so on. One restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, even went so far as to create a faux lobster that you had to break open with a hammer — you know, to replicate the experience of eating a real one. Even some of the most hardcore vegans in that city, back then, thought it was the height of absurdity.

I was reminded of this bit of silliness while eating lunch with a friend in Xinbei. This place is completely vegetarian friendly, and that attitude is reflected in the place’s English name / slogan. It’s not very subtle: “Be A Vegetarian.” The Chinese name is 丰系人良.This restaurant’s existence may come as a pleasant surprise to those who are still mourning the loss of Salad Stuff in the Xinbei media tower complex. It has usually been thought that being a vegetarian in Changzhou is to be faced with limited options. This place, however, can be seen as a welcome alternative to those tiring of eating salads all the time.

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Some of their set meals feature the sort of faux meat you would find in vegetarian cafes in America.

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And others are just straight up veggie dishes, like the above mushroom medley. Some of the food here is even vegan friendly. There is also something for a vegetarian’s meat eating dining partner.

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The yellow curry beef here is good in a light, sweet sort of way. The other thing here, now, involves the trendiness that is Wechat.

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There is no paper menu. You have to scan a QR code to get to one on Wechat.

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Obviously, this means there are pictures of the food. Plus, if you wanted to translate the Chinese, you could simply take a screenshot and feed it into Baidu Translate on your phone.  This set up allows you to pay with your Wechat wallet.

With good quality food, extremely reasonable prices, and lots of convenience, this place is worth multiple visits. It can be found on Daduhe Road after it intersects with Huishan Road going eastwards. Essentially, its on a east-west street parallel with the southern part of Hohai University, and it’s not too far of a walk from Xinbei Wanda Plaza.

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Xian Noodles in College Town

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Across the street from the Changzhou College of Information Technology, there is a small noodle shop. Now, noodle joints are definitely not uncommon in this city or China in general — and that may be the understatement of the century. This one has a menu that contains some Xian dishes, and that is what sets it apart from the others. Xian food is not a common thing here, but that’s if you exclude the widely available 肉夹馍 Ròu jiā mó, aka “Chinese Hamburger.” Don’t get me wrong. You can get that too at this noodle shop, but it’s not one of the more exclusive items. I used to always go here to get 臊子面 Sàozi miàn.

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This is a hearty noodle soup consisting of carrots, potatoes, tofu, shredded pork, bean sprouts, and more. The above picture is the hot and sour version. There is also a version that is less spicy.

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Either version is 10 RMB, which is, of course, extremely cheap for a filling lunch. Among the other things on the menu, they do have good versions of more common dishes not from Xian.

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This is 担担面 Dàndàn miàn. It originates from Sichuan, and it is in basically a “hot and numbing” spicy pork based sauce. This is more of a dry noodle dish and not a soup. As stated, this is very easy to find. It doesn’t change the fact that is still a good dish at the Xian noodle shop. It also goes for 10 RMB a bowl.

Monkey King Bargains

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Half of my ethnic heritage comes from Italy, so it’s very easy for me to  say, “Monkey King is one of my favorite restaurants in Changzhou.” Of course, it’s not as good as my late mother’s home cooking, but it’s still pretty darned awesome. It consistently has the best pizza in town — which I would very readily compare to the sort that you can find in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York City. By that, I mean thin crust.  They’re not exactly alike, but it’s the closest you will find in Changzhou.

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If there is one thing I would complain about, it would be the prices. But then again, a person should be willing to pay for a high end dining experience. And Monkey King is high end dining in Changzhou. That leads to another point. From time to time, the restaurant does an all-you-can- eat buffet. Recently, the location in Xinbei hosted one of these on the 25th of February from 6pm to 10pm. Incidentally, the 25th was also the one year anniversary of this blog (a very happy, but totally unrelated coincidence!). For 198 RMB, diners were treated to veal, eggplant, salads, seafood dishes, and more. There was also all-you-can-drink bottled beer and Italian red wine. If you take all of that together, it’s quite a good deal. I ate like a pig; I will not lie about that. Next time Monkey King offers one of these — in either Wujin or Xinbei locations — seriously consider going. It’s more than worth the money.

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Where to find in Changzhou, even on regular menu days.

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Wujin Location near Yancheng.

 

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Xinbei location near Candle’s Steakhouse.