Category Archives: Restaurants

Last Resort Breakfast Eggs

When you are travelling, and you don’t know Chinese food all that well, there is one place you can always count on in an emergency: Pizza Hut. To be honest, the place is way over priced, and the quality of the food isn’t all that great. However, here is a scary thought: Pizza Hut in China is actually better than Pizza Hut back in America.  One of the only selling points is the convenience. In this part of China, Pizza Huts are nearly everywhere.

The other thing is breakfast. Pizza Hut is one of the places where you can get western style eggs, including omelettes and bacon.   Sure, diners back in Jersey do this much, much better. But this obviously isn’t New Jersey, and thank the lord for that. If you are in Xinbei, it might be better to check into OK Koala first — especially if it’s a Sunday morning. 

OK Koala: Sunday Brunch with Grandma

“You are asking the wrong person. I am quite antisocial. I don’t know.” 

I said this to a friend of mine, recently. She’s Chinese, and her fiance is an American new to China. In day to day to life, he is surrounded by his future Chinese in-laws.  He’s also surrounded by Chinese, and not his native language. Potentially, he may feel like a stranger in strange land, and she was wondering how and where he could meet fellow expats. As we talked, I realized that trying to use my fundamental lack of people skills as an escape was not going to be helpful to her and her fiance.  So, I thought extra hard for answer.

And then my mind drifted to Satina Anziano. She used to operate Grandma’s Nook in Wujin. It was a bakery that specialized in super awesome multigrain and sour dough breads. Plus there were always homemade chocolate chip cookies and rather illicit and guilty pleasure inducing cinnamon rolls. I mean, who else in Changzhou actually made and sold cinnamon rolls? She used to do Sunday brunch in at her Wujin shop, too. Only, I was always too busy to go. After all, I tend to be an antisocial, brooding, solitary type of guy. I know that’s a problem, and I am trying to get over it. Plus, I had too many part time jobs on Sunday, so I never went.

Satina has since retired and sold her shop. But, she’s still active in the expat community. Her brunches never ended, they just migrated from Wujin to Xinbei. Every sunday, Grandma’s brunches are now available at OK Koala, which can be found just one B1 BRT stop beyond Xinbei Wanda Plaza.

Every Sunday, you can get the sort of heavy breakfast that would be readily available all day in either an Australian cafe or a New Jersey diner. By this, I mean scrambled eggs, toast, potatoes, omelettes, and much more. This is the ultimate comfort food while living in Changzhou. Why? It’s hard to find. if you don’t make it for yourself. Besides OK Koala, the only place to get a breakfast like this would be Pizza Hut. After all, they serve omelettes and hash brown sticks.  Only, the person eating one table over from you will be Chinese, and they will be spooning an expensive porridge into their mouth. And they will likely be more concerned with staring at QQ on their iPhone than talking to you.

Grandma’s brunch’s at OK Koala is a great chance to meet your fellow expats. I went there recently. I realized that it had been forever since I talked to Satina, I went there to find her, only to find out that she had been feeling ill, Still, I hung around, and for the first time somebody showed me what Australian vegemite was, when

Vegemite on toast!

thinly spread onto bread. A New Zealander was also quick on hand that marmite was better. Vegemite? Marmite? It’s all the same to

this Jersey guy.  It’s deliciously sort of bitter on toast. But, honestly, I loved that a Kiwi and an Aussie had a chance to argue their cases in front of clueless American. And, right now, OK Koala is the only place to to have discussions like that on Sunday mornings.

 

 

 

OK Koala: Down Under in the Middle Kingdom

American knowledge of Australian food might be restricted to Vegemite. I don’t even know what exactly that is — other than a darkly colored paste that many Aussies like to slather onto toast. And there is only one reason why I know this.  It was a lyric in the now forgotten (by Americans) Men at Work song “Down Under.” So, I am imagining its a cultural cliche — just the same way that “Fosters is Australian” is also a a cliche.

“Oh, Rich, that’s a shit beer we feed to foreigners,”  an Aussie friend once told me. “Why? We don’t want drink it!”

So, yes, okay, I don’t really don’t know anything about Australian food and drinks. This is why my curiosity was piqued by OK Koala, in Xinbei. It’s a cafe and a bar operated by an Aussie, and it recently underwent a soft opening. In short, all that means it is brand new and that some menu items might not be available, as the Chinese staff undergoes training on how to actually prepare some of the food items.

One thing, however, is readily available. Meat pies! I had three of them last I visited: steak and mushroom, ground beef and cheese, and chicken and leek. All of them were very good and reasonably priced. OK Koala even has sausage rolls. These seemed to have more ground sausage at the middle. So, if one is looking for the Scottish variety (a British sausage link wrapped in pastry dough), look elsewhere. But seriously, this is about as close as you are going to get in city like Changzhou.

While this place wears it’s Australian nationality on it’s sleeve (and why shouldn’t it!), the amount of alcohol available is well stocked and  extremely international. Yes, you can find Australian beer here, but you can even find American micro brew. Hell, the bar even has a bottle of Polish egg-based advocaat, should a weary and homesick Pollack wander in.

And wandering in is extremely easy.  OK Koala is conveniently located. It’s next to the BRT station just one stop north of Wanda Plaza.

Jagerwirt’s Lamb Special

American holiday traditions can change from family to family; that’s just part of living in a multicultural society. After all, each family has a unique set of ancestors hailing from multiple countries. While growing up, Easter dinner for me, for example, was a hodgepodge of Italian-American dishes, and curiously enough, roasted lamb.  It was one of the only times of the year my mom ever prepared it.

I don’t know if I was thinking about this or not while eating at Jagerwirt in Wujin, recently. I was out at that German restuarant with a friend to celebrate Easter. I puzzled over the menu for a moment and than for some reason impulsively went for the daily special: lamb chops with mashed potatoes and a few grilled veggies.

It was easily the best lamb I’ve eaten in Changzhou. When cooked wrong, lamb can be greasy and chewy. This was tender and easy to cut with a knife. The sauce went well with the mashed potatoes, but you can say this dish skimped a little on the vegetables.  However, This just another example that I’ve seldom had a lackluster meal at Jagerwirt.

I wish the could say the same for other people. As for my friend’s dinner, I have to say Jagerwirt is not exactly vegetarian friendly. For the price on the menu, their mixed vegetable salad struck me as a bit small and lacking. I love how Jagerwirt is the one of the only places that you can get an actual baked potato, but once you strip off the sour cream and chives they can some times taste a little dry — as if prepared a little too far in advanced.

A Place for Turkey

 photo IMG_20160317_124827_zpsnm2zqhkw.jpgNever in a million years did I ever think I would write a blog post about eating at a Subway Restaurant. Perhaps that’s the Jersey in me. As I have noted elsewhere, Jersey-ites can be insane about sandwiches. Just like with pizza, if you tell a guy from The Garden State that you like a corporate restaurant chain, you will get an exasperated response that includes a list of local places. Alas, that is back in America, and I live in China. In the two-plus years I have lived here, I have had a change of heart. I have gone from hating Subway to now begrudgingly tolerating its existence.

There is a very specific reason for this. I still think their sandwiches and hoagies are substandard, but I realized something. Subway is one of the few places that actually sells turkey. Yeah, it’s pre-packed and like the mass produced Oscar Meyer lunch meats back in the USA. Yeah, freshly baked turkey from a Jewish deli is better. Last I checked, though, China really doesn’t have Jewish delis either. Chinese people don’t eat turkey, period. For them, it’s an exotic, foreign, expensive meat that must be imported.

As for Subway, Changzhou has two I know about. Both are in Xinbei; one is near Xinbei Central Park, and the other is in the shopping plaza outside Dinosaur Park. There was a third downtown, in the Nandajie shopping area. Yet, that one shut down, because nobody ever ate there. So, there you go, my only reason to eat at subway: you can find a turkey sandwich there. Truth be told, I don’t often have cravings for those. So, possible return visits for me are still limited.

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Are You Looking for Shit?

What the hell is this shit?
What the hell is this shit?

Living in China is to be sometimes confronted with a number of hilarious WTF! moments. Imagine this: you are shopping at Nandajie in downtown Changzhou. You pass a restaurant, and you seemingly do not notice at first. Yet, something alarms you. It starts in the corner of vision; something registers as “not quite right,” but you are not sure what it is. So, you stop walking and you turn. What you see, not only makes your jaw drop, but the bottle of water you are sipping falls from your hand. You blink a few times, and you try to comprehend the epic weirdness – but it’s hard. Very hard.

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Literally eating out of a urinal.

Why? You are staring through the window of a poop-themed restaurant. Most of the seats around the tables are toilets. Plush and cuddly stuffed turds hang from the wall. The seat back cushions are shaped like swirled-up piles of crap. Shit really factors in big to the decor, but that’s not the most surreal part of it all. The weirder parts are the patrons, the happy diners you might see here. It’s a Saturday night. A group of guys huddle around a table and the empty beer bottles crowd their table to the very edges. A love struck man ignores the pork, mushrooms, potatoes, and other vegetables in front of him to gaze adoringly at his date. He is oblivious to how shit surrounds him. The most off-putting thing is the family you see.  With chopsticks, a Chinese mom and dad warmly take turns feeding sea vegetables to their young, rambunctious, and squirming son. All three smile and enjoy a heartfelt bonding moment – despite the constant reminders of human excrement around them. I didn’t know how they could be so oblivious about eating around so many reminders of defecation.

Maybe Americans are just culturally prude? This is something I have often asked myself for many reasons – especially when it comes to this particular restaurant. It wasn’t because it offended me; it didn’t. It’s because, secretly, curiosity had the best of me. I wanted to go in and see what the hell the place was about. Only, I didn’t have the courage to do it by myself. Well, that changed, recently – thanks to a most daring and most adventurous friend. Together we boldly went where some Changzhou expats might fear to tread.

So what was the poop restaurant like? Surreal, for sure. I sat on a toilet, and my friend had a regular chair. One of the most immediate drawbacks became apparent. If you sit on a toilet in one of these places, you can’t move it around to find your comfort spot while eating. You are stuck in one place and must stay there. Other problems included the table itself. This was a “Paper Barbecue” place. Like hot pot in China, you select raw ingredients, bring them to your table, and your meal cooks in front of you. “Paper BBQ” has a heating element / grill within the table itself. The paper keeps grease all in one place and not falling into the heating element.. At our table, the grill seemed a bit faulty. Half the food cooked quicker than the other

Breast shaped sippy cups?
Breast shaped sippy cups?

half. The paper itself and oil burned quickly, giving off an unpleasant odor. Long afterwards, my friend complained that the smell had gotten into her clothes and hair. Days later, she reported that the stench is still in her jacket, and she was considering getting it washed or dry cleaned. The taste of the food lingered long afterwards. It was mostly cheap vegetables and inexpensive, low quality meat. The fatty pork and beef left my stomach slightly upset. I chose to ignore that because I was in the presence of my lovely friend. My attention needed to be focused on her, exclusively.

If I tried to describe every weird thing I saw, this review would never end. So, I will just stick to the most utterly bizarre, and the best way to handle artless transitions is to use bullet points.

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    A shitty uniform.

    The biggest incongruity is the name, 29 主题烤吧The Chinese word for shit is nowhere in its name. It just plainly says “themed restaurant” and hints at the cooking method.

  • This sort of eatery really doesn’t have real waiters or waitresses. It’s self service, after all. However, one busboy sported a shirt that says, in translation, Are you looking for shit? The Chinese text is above a picture of poo.
  • Some of the  ceramic plates meant for cooked food are shaped like urinals.
  • There are both boxed drinks and fountain drinks available. But the glasses are shaped like breasts that force you to suck at a nipple.
  • Hand-washing sinks are shaped like bent-over buttocks.
  • Cartoonish porcelain turds with exaggerated facial expressions await you upon checkout; they are by the cash register.
  • This wasn’t the only feces-themed restaurant in Changzhou.  There used to be another in the downtown Injoy Mall.
  • If you Google China Shit Themed Restaurant, you will be bewildered to find that these places are extremely common in The Middle Kingdom. 
  • I could go on and on and on. And then go on some more.

And, that’s sort of the point. The surreal nature of the place is its only selling point. It certainly isn’t the food, and women will more than likely hate that a stench will cling to them long after they leave. The only reason to go here is to experience the weirdness first hand.

Cartoon poop.
Cartoon poop.

Fast Chinese Food: Mala Tang (麻辣烫)

Buffet choices at a 麻辣烫 mala tang restuarant.
Buffet choices at a 麻辣烫 mala tang restuarant.

Here is a problem expats new to China — or new to a Chinese city — routinely face. Where do you eat when you are in a hurry and only want a quick bite? If you live in a medium-sized city like Changzhou, the answer is simple: McDonalds, Burger King, or KFC. But really, that is a diet of unhealthy grease and carbs, and the more you eat it, the more sick of it you become. The novelty of a Big Mac or a Whopper with Cheese in China wears off the longer you live here. Fried Chicken is scrumptious, but eat too much of it every week, and you will loathe that too. And what if you are a vegetarian? A vegan? You feel royally screwed with few options

It doesn’t have to be that way. One of my best friends recently showed me an alternative, and it has quickly become a staple of my eating-out diet. It’s called mala tang (麻辣烫). Literally, it means “hot and numbing soup.” When it comes to Chinese food, this is even more friendly to Chinese-language illiterates than picture menus. Why? There is no menu, at all.

You walk into the place, grab a bowl, and you grab tongs. There is a buffet of meat, raw vegetables, and dumplings to choose from. My first choices are usually cabbage. For me, soup always has to have some sort cabbage in it. I blame my European ancestry for that. From there, it depends on my mood. Today, I had cabbage, mushrooms, quail eggs, and dumplings with pork centers. They other day? A profound fish theme–but with cabbage!. Every time you visit one of these places, the flavor of your soup changes based on your ingredient selections. This means that these places take much longer to become boring than KFC will be within two weeks.

Then, you grab a bottled drink and hand your bowl to a cashier. He or she weighs it, charges you money, and then hands your bowl it to the cook. You go to your table and wait. And then? Five to ten minutes later, your soup is brought to you. Your carefully selected ingredients are sitting in a spicy broth, ready to eat. The most I have paid for this sort of meal has been 30 RMB, but my go to lama tang joint is in Xinbei Wanda Plaza. It is bound to be more expensive the the mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall lama tang restaurants that are all over Changzhou and China in general.

Mala Tang Soup. Withlots of vegetables!
Mala Tang Soup. Withlots of vegetables!

Turkish Pizza at Xinbei’s Istanbul Restuarant

Istanbul Restuarant’s Slightly Oblong Pizza.

Pizza is something I am passionate about. What can I say? I am from New Jersey, a surreal place where intense Facebook drama wars can, and have, broken out over this subject. Do you love Pizza Hut? Never say that in Jersey! You will likely get lengthy list of locally owned pizzerias in response. This list will also be given to you with a bunch of exasperated sighs and eye rolls. Add to this that I am half Italian-American, and the pizza I grew up eating was home cooked and made by my mother.  And if you say anything is better than my mom’s cooking, I will fight you!

Simply put, my standards for judging  pizza quality are absurdly high — to the point where  personal, cultural, and ethnic issues are all in play. Not to mention the memory of my late, dearly departed mother. The worst thing you can do, if you are sharing a pizza with me, is to ask what I think about it. You will get a lengthy, dramatic monologue, with footnotes. And digressions, too! Wild gesticulations might also be possible. After all, I might need to empatically prove a point. Your non-spoken response might be,:”This guy is a bit loony.” You wouldn’t be that far from the truth. We are only talking about pizza after all.

And even despite all of this personal baggage, I can say I have eaten some of the best pizza in Changzhou, recently. For me, it also came from a surprising place: Istanbul Restaurant. I only have a passing knowledge of Turkish cuisine. Sure, I have eaten my share of Donor Kebabs and hummus, but I never knew the country had it’s own, unique heritage when it comes to pizza.

So, Istanbul Restuarant’s pizza doesn’t share the circular shape of it’s Italian and Italian-American. You could say it’s in the shape of an eye, but one were the eyeball is yellow and filled with chunks of meat. Let’s set the surreality of that one side for a moment. The crust is thin, which is a relief. Most of the pizza you can find in China tends to be thick. And for a guy from Jersey, that’s just bad. Very  bad. Pizza should not taste like bread with pizza toppings on it. The greatest thing though, is the beef donor kebab toppings.  That was a first for me, and while the thought sounded alien at first. Actually eating it on a pizza seemed like an absolute no-brainer after the initial first bite.

And so it comes to this: Istanbul Restaurant simply makes pizza you just cannot find anywhere else in Changzhou.

 

Indian Vegetarian Fare at Kaffe

Three vegetarian dishes with the obligatory rice to soak up the sauce!

Recently, I took a very dear and very close friend to Kaffe. It’s an Indian Cafe near the Wujin TV Tower and Xintiandi Park. It’s easy to get to on the B11 BRT bus. The Indian guys that run the place are super friendly, and they have no problem reducing the spiciness level to your preference. Let’s just say that, once, I ate lamb vindaloo there had both sweat dripping from my face and tears pouring from my eyes. And I couldn’t stop eating! I never knew both intense, agonizing, and excruciating pain and deliciousness could coexist! Point: I have never had a bad meal there. And good restaurants are meant to be shared.

More importantly, my friend is a vegetarian and new to Wujin, and I wanted to show her an eatery potentially friendly to her lifestyle choices. So, what did we eat? This is the point where I curse the flash on my Huawei phone’s camera. It renders food in a most unappetizing light — especially when it comes to saucy dishes. You can clearly see that in the above photo.

Anyhow, back to the point. What did we eat? I chose to defer to my friend’s vegetarianism. While I currently eat meat, I once was a vegetarian for a large part of my life.  Meat can always be foregone for the sake of pleasant company. And besides, part of me misses being moral certainty of being vegetarian. Besides, I enjoy vegetarian food anyway. So, onto the food….

There is one dish I can’t remember the Indian name for. It’s listed under “Snacks” and it’s chick peas, potatoes, and other vegetables with a drizzle of plain yogurt.  In my mind, I have always called it “Indian Potato Salad.”  Because, well, that’s what it is … a type of potato salad. There was also  mixed vegetable curry, but if your inclinations slant towards “vegan” this dish might not be for you. It has paneer in it; that is, dense, slightly sweet, cubes of Indian cheese.  I didn’t know that when we ordered. The last thing we shared was chana masala — a delicious chickpea dish easily found in most Indian restaurants back in America..

You could say we ordered two thirds of all the vegetarian options available. Kaffe’s menu is not that vast, and that’s not a complaint. I’d rather a restaurant do a limited number of things well than dozens of things poorly.

Candle’s Mediocre Jeager Schnitzel

Changzhou’s foreigner population contains a high number of Germans. They tend to be engineers — logic dictates that they would not be English teachers. This demographic reality can be seen on high-priced restaurant menus meant to attract expats and their money. And by this, I do not mean Jeagerwirt or Chocolate’s in Wujin — both actually boast themselves as “German Restaurants.” Rightfully so, too. Both are great.  I am talking more about the generally themed “foreign” eateries that want to be everything to everybody.

Candles in Xinbei is such a place. Their menu tries to excite Australians, Americans, Brits, Germans, and more. This is a place often championed as “The Place” to hang out in Changzhou. And that’s true — but only if you live in Xinbei.  The people who champion this place the as the greatest ever are people who live in Xinbei and think Wujin is a waste of time.

I now live in Xinbei, and I can tell you that when it comes to German food, Candles is mediocre. It’s great, because, well, there is nothing else in the Xinbei district that competes. When you have nothing else, and you only have one option, mediocre is quite awesome. Think about it. What other choice do you have? You don’t.

I thought about this, because I ate a Jeager Schnitzel at Candles for lunch, and it was nice. But. But! But, Jeagerwirt  and Chocolate’s in Wujin do this particular dish much better. Please don’t assume this as “hating” on Candles. I would eat this again and eat it again at Candles.