A Spaetzle Smackdown

Sitting in Jagerwirt a couple of years ago, I once ate a bowl of spaetzle and burst out into tears. Those who know me personally also know that my first few years in Changzhou were highly moody ones. Essentially, I hadn’t really fully gotten over the death of my mother years before, and that had ripple effects to other parts of my life in highly negative ways. I basically was still in bottle-up your feelings mode. So, what was it about German noodles that sent me off on a crying fit? Trust me, this is going to sound really dumb.

My mother was the greatest cook on the planet, and I’ll fight anybody who disagrees! In my family’s travels across the world, my mom learned how to cook many things from Filipino chicken adobe to various European cuisines and the Italian-America fare my grandmother taught her since childhood. Everyday was a day that my family got spoiled at the dinner table, and if there was anything my mom loved to do, it was spoil her family with good food.

However, there was one dish of hers that I never liked, and for many decades I always refused to order it in German restaurants: spaetzle. The thought was simple: if my mother couldn’t master it, than it was the dish’s fault and not hers. When you are trying to overcome profound grief, it’s best to confront your ghosts, even when those specters are merely represented by a bowl of cheese and noodles. Suffice to say, Jagerwirt’s spaetzle was easily better than my mom’s. I burst into tears because admitting that somebody could cook something better than her felt like an obscene personal heresy. Yes, I said this was really dumb reasoning, but then again, grief can really warp your thinking even on the most mundane things.

All these years later, I can now definitively say that I am in a calmer space where I can eat German cheesy noodles without having a full-tilt emotional breakdown. I know this because I recently dined on this dish twice over the past month. I thought it might be interesting to do a comparative study. Let’s first start with Zapfler over at Canal 5 in Zhonglou.

Zapfler’s spaetzle is solid in its simplicity. You basically have cheese melted over noodles in a very creamy sauce. Changzhou really has nothing by way of American-style mac n’ cheese, but the taste with this is one is one of the closest one will come. For that reason alone, I would definitely go back to Zapfler for this. Next up, let’s give Jagerwirt in Wujin consideration.

Jagerwirt’s version is not as basic as Zapfler’s. This has chives and fried onions as a garnish. Also included are little bits of bacon — which adds a slightly more oily element Zapfler’s lacks. Still, also very good.

So, if this were a noodle fight, who would be victorious? Well, if this were a UFC bout or a boxing match, it would definitely go the distance and to the judges’ scorecard. Both are very good, and this call goes down to basically my personal preference. I would absolutely have both again in the future, but I have to nod my head to Jagerwirt. I liked the contrast crunchy onions bring to what is essentially a very cheesy and gooey dish. Plus, bacon is a universal condiment that makes most anything taste better.

Still, don’t trust me on this. Try both and come to your own conclusion. And, Mom — wherever you are — I’m sorry to say this, really; both are better than yours.

Jagerwirt
Zapfler

Changzhou’s Cultural Plaza by Night

The Changzhou Cultural Plaza has been an architectural project that has been under construction ever since I moved to Xinbei, and it was likely being built before that . Since 2016, this large piece of real estate has been under development, and it has been touted as a signature bit of architecture. Now that it is complete, it’s Changzhou’s way of saying, “Hey, architectural nerds? Look at this!”

Architecture is an art unto itself. It is, after all, the graphic design of buildings and skyscrapers. Lines and angles are of paramount importance. So, that being said, allow me to revel in how the building lights up at night. Walking through it is such a visual experience.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The area is still relatively new, and some of the storefronts are still empty. The ground level so far has cultural attractions by way of a library and an art gallery. The lower level has a few restaurants and higher end bars. Obviously, a lot of money was invested into the Changzhou Cultural Plaza, so it will be interesting to see how this area evolves in the coming years.

No Logic at Computer City

If one tried to follow the plot of the original version of Suspiria, one would be likely driven insane. An American girl goes to a German dance academy that’s secretly run by a cabal of witches. However, the plot twists and turns and contorts into so many absurd directions that it would laughable if it wasn’t for the uniquely terrifying ambiance Dario Argento brought to his art-house horror masterpiece. The interior layout of the Tanz Dance Academy makes even less sense — multiple secret passages, hidden doors, and so on. There is one room that exists only to be filled with razor wire, and one of the students meets an untimely fate there. I reflected upon this movie multiple times over the years while in Changzhou. Specifically, while in the Computer City mall near the city center.

By no means am I accusing Computer City of being a hotbed of the occult or home to a secret hive of evil witches posing as ballet instructors. That would be silly. The bloody gore factor is also nonexistent. But there are a lot of things that have not made sense over the years in terms of Computer City’s layout. It should be noted that Changzhou of 2014 is not the Dragon City of the 2020s. A lot has changed both here and across the Southern Jiangsu region. Computer City had its heyday, but online shopping has both crippled it and other commodity markets. What now remains is an illogical and half-shuttered mess. For example, consider the elevator that nobody uses, is closed to the public, and has absolutely no practical value.

And take a good look at that track and field painted on the floor. It used to not be there several years ago. By the way, the gate to this playground has a D-lock on it, and every time I’ve gone technology window shopping in this half-deserted mall, I have never seen people actually use it. Then, there’s this.

The basement level used to be substantially larger. You can actually see it here. This was from the pre-painted-track-and-field years of this particular location. Recently, I returned to take a similarly angled photo. Keep in mind the above was taken from the third floor, and the below was taken from the fourth.

Floor space was created when there was none before. Anyhow, the weirdness persists. Some of the Chinglish in the elevators is epic.

Why? Most of them are currently abandoned! Their storefront windows are caked with dust. Is this an admission that those hallways and corridors are haunted? Will a scary ghost girl with hair hanging over her face chase me if I do? Will she try to eat my face? Um, no. I don’t buy it. It’s just years of neglect and reduced foot traffic.

But amateur doors are okay? And by which international credentialing committee will you be using? I know the Olympics has been tarred by doping scandals for decades now. You can’t trust them. However, last I checked, doors do not compete in either the winter or summer games. Believe it or not, this is not the worst when it comes to Chinese-to-English translation errors. The basement of Computer City used to be home to one of the most outrageous bits of Chinglish of all time. Consider this photo.

Yeah, nothing to see here. I know. However, keep in mind of what used to be here years ago. And I’ll leave this as a final word about how strange Computer City can be.

A Tale of Two Buffalo Wings

Buffalo wings in China can be a culinarily frustrating topic. More often than not, chicken wings are classified as “Buffalo” on a menu, but they taste nothing like the cayenne pepper spiciness one would actually find back in America. A few months ago, on the basis of a tip from a friend, I managed to locate actual Buffalo wings in Nanjing, but that’s the capital of Jiangsu and not Changzhou. Essentially, I had given up on finding this particular dish in the dragon city. However, two possibilities have cropped up recently. I thought it might be interesting to give both a side-by-side consideration. Let’s start in the city center.

Burgeri is a restaurant I have known about for many months now. There were two things that kept me out of this place: 1) I hadn’t really seen anybody eating in there every time I walked by, and 2) I distrust Chinese owned places that do hamburgers — I’ve been burned way too many times. A Canadian friend told me that it was decent enough, and that he had noticed Buffalo wings on the menu. So, I gave it a try.

First, it should be noted that the white dipping sauce in this picture is ranch dressing and not blue cheese. These were largely okay. The sauce used is absolutely Buffalo, yet it will neither set your tongue nor your mouth on fire.

Honestly, Burgeri’s wings tastes like somebody imported only one jug of Texas Pete, and because it might have been kind of expensive, they started using the sauce a conservatively as possible. Back home, these would be very mediocre. However, I’m in Changzhou and not the USA, and the flavor is there — just at a lower intensity. There is little other competition, and so what would suck stateside is an exotic delicacy in Changzhou. So, if you want to eat something that merely scratches a culinary itch, Burgeri will will do that.

One thing has to be noted, though. Burgeri uses a QR code based menu where you scan your table and make your order. There practically is no waitstaff, and the menu is in 100% Chinese. The people running the place do not speak English, or at least nobody did when I visted. So, you have to make your dining selections through either shoving screenshots into a translation app or by trusting the pictures. Now, onto the next one: OK Koala.

In the name of full disclosure, I am like the furniture in this place: always there. The owner is a very, very close, personal friend of mine. If I didn’t say this, somebody could plausibly accuse me of bias. And if you are one of those people, knock it off. We’re talking chicken wings and not intrepid investigative reporting on weighty issues of international implications. Plus, I think I can be honest in letting the details do the talking.

Good wings usually means a pile of tissues from wiping your fingers and face!

While Burgeri’s wing sauce is likely out of a bottle, Koala makes their own on site. Also, the sauce is served separately. This is a very wise thing to do, as it allows the wing eater to control the heat level to their liking. If you want to just do daubs, you can. If you want to slather it on, you can also do that. Also, if one just wants the wings on not the sauce at all, it allows the diner just that. The other difference entails how Koala only sells wings and not drumettes.

Which place has better Buffalo wings? I am inclined to say Koala, but people can try both for themselves and make their own decision.

Xinbei, Near Wanda and Found City Plazas.
Downtown, Near Qingguo Lane

The Physician at the End of the 63

The 63 is a bus route that connects the Changzhou central train station in Tianning to a more remote part of Wujin near the eastern city line with Wuxi. The area around the southern terminus of this line looks deceptively simple.

Arguably, this is a part of southern Changzhou that has a decidedly small town vibe. This part of the city reeks of “nothing to see here.” This is both true and false. First, there really isn’t much to see at the end of the 63 bus route, but there is a personally complicating factor for me. Taking this bus to its final destination resulted in my learning more about Chinese culture.

Yes, this is a relatively small temple with a Guanyin statue out front. The temple doors were shut, and I was not able to enter and look around. I did, however, try research this place a few weeks later. That simply involved learning this place’s Chinese name — Hua Tuo An 华佗庵 and slapping those Chinese characters into net searches. As it turns out, Hua Tuo was a luminary in Chinese medicine.

This doctor lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty; he was born in what would become modern Anhui and died in 208 BCE. In Chinese history, he was the first physician to employ anesthesia during surgery. That likely involved spiking potent alcohol with a couple of herbs and making the patient drink the resulting elixir before cutting them open. Hua Tuo also preformed trepanations — boring holes though a person’s skull to gain access to a person’s brain. His acumen as a doctor and a surgeon was legendary during his life. Cao Cao is perhaps one of Hua’s more famous patients in this regard. This warlord paved the way for the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.

Any old guy who has been near a gaming console over the last twenty years should know the Dynasty Warriors series. It tried to make a player a combatant some of China’s most epic battles. Of course, Cao Cao is a character in those. But, let’s get back to the point.

At one point, Cao Cao started to experience hallucinatory headaches. As concerns over his health mounted, he demanded the best doctor alive tend to him. For reason that I can’t easily find, Hua refused to to treat Cao as ongoing person doctor. While seemingly universal thousands of years later, the Hippocratic Oath just wasn’t a thing in Ancient China — save life whenever you can, and Hua had none of that. Hua continually refused to treat Cao — he made up excuses that involved tending to his allegedly infirm wife. Cao figured out he was lying and ordered his execution. Hua didn’t relent, so he was put to death.

Of course, I’m glossing over this story in the most simplest terms. But for me, it’s a strong reminder of one thing. When you are a foreigner living in a land like the Middle Kingdom with an absurd amount of history, taking a bus like the 63 to the middle of nowhere Wujin will still teach you something, if you look hard enough.

Strange, Infantile, and Vulgar in Liyang

If one is easily offended by Euro-style statue nudity, read no further.

Liyang sometimes feels like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There is the majestic bamboo sea, the pristine Tianmahu Lake, and the delicious fish head soup that is famous throughout China. That would be the Dr. Jekyll aspect of Changzhou’s county-level city. That is what is shown to you on postcards and media blitzes meant to pump tourism into the region. The Mr. Hyde part — that would be darker aspect, for those not versed in the Robert Louis Stevenson classic — would be Liyang’s downtown. Sure, a friend of mine suggested being smitten by this thought: It has at least two Starbucks! But so does Jintan — and that district has large parks and cultural attractions near their downtown. Like in walking distance. This was brought into focus for me based upon a recent visit.

Above is a picture of Pingling Plaza. It’s one of the older shopping plazas in Liyang. A friend of mine who actually lives in town did correctly point out to me that the city now has shiny brand new malls by way of a Wanda and a Wuyue. However, those were not next to my hotel, and I remembered that Pingling had a Thai restaurant that I wanted to try last time I was in town. Only, Pingling Plaza is open for business in name only.

Roughly about 90% of the plaza is being gutted and remodeled. Most of the place is inaccessible. I quickly gave up on my search for the aforementioned Thai restaurant. I did try to see what else was open. But, I was met with this.

Nothing says “go away” more than blocked off escalator. But, you know what? I was undeterred, and there was a working elevator behind me. I ascended! This is what I saw.

So, let’s see? What we have here looks like a training center, a Chinese-style pizza shop, and lot of noise made by hammers, saws, and jackhammers. The limited access and all the noise means that these businesses are not getting a lot of casual foot traffic. I mean, the only way to get here is to take the elevator — or the stairs. How do they stay in business, besides hardcore dedicated customers? But, this is not the weirdest thing about Pingling Plaza. Dejected by the realization that I wasn’t going to get to try the Thai restaurant I saw last time I was in town, I descended the floors and left. Out into the rain. I walked around Pingling Plaza and noticed this.

So, somebody with an infantile imagination took a black sharpie and decided to add something to the anatomy of these statues. The statues themselves are actually quite common place in this end of China. Greek and Romanesque figures are pretty normal outside spas and restaurants vying for chic vibe. Of course, I accuse the vandalizer of being infantile, but then again I am writing about this because I thought it rose to New Jersey levels of silly weirdness. Who is truly being infantile here, the graffiti guy with the magic marker or the guy that decides he needs to take a photo of it? The answer is likely both.

This whole blog post sounds like I am being harsh and critical of Liyang. Maybe I am, and maybe I’m not? Despite any negative connotations this may bring up, I am looking forward to my next visit there. Liyang is technically Changzhou, but it has a local culture of it’s own. It is, after all, an independent county-level city and not a district in Changzhou the municipality. That whole trip consisted of being rained out and stuck mostly in a pre-booked hotel. So, maybe the next time I will see the good the downtown has to offer.

Not Japanese Street

Living on Hanjiang Road is such a privilege, and over the years I have rented an apartment there, it has easily become my favorite part of Xinbei and Changzhou in general. Want good sushi? Walk across the street! Want Indian food? Walk across the street! If you like Japanese food, living in this part of Xinbei is pretty much being spoiled. I realized this recently after I had to leave my apartment for a few nights due to my landlord needing to fix my ceiling. I took a room in the Haiyang Hotel across the street from Wanda. Now without access to a kitchen, I decided to walk across the street and grab some dinner.

I decided to try out one of the Japanese restaurants there. There are two to five eateries dedicated to this cuisine on Wanda’s pedestrain street. Randomly, I walked into one seeking a simple beef curry. To be fair, over time, I had tried some of the other shops, but they tended to be more ramen focused. The place I strolled into was an expansive menu place that you would easily find on Hanjiang Road.

But before that, I had some chicken meatballs.

And a diced up lamb chop.

And then, the aforementioned curry I had been craving. So, what did I think? Honestly, I was underwhelmed to the point where I realized that I was taking living on Japanese Street for granted. The portions were stingy. For a place that does both noodles and raw fish, there was not a buffet / all you can eat option. Ordering small portions ala carte can lead to hefty tabs to be paid off. Everything I ate had tastier options on Japanese Street. That’s not to say the food was bad — it did scratch a Japanese itch. I just realized that the places on Hanjiang Road were merely better.

Love in an Odd Place

August is the season of Qixi. Every year, this day is the traditional Chinese Valentines — whereas the day in February is a cultural import. Then, there are others; a friend of mine likes to complain there are many “Valentines” that were created by Chinese women conspiring to get more chocolate, flowers, and attention every year. I don’t know about that. He is married to a Chinese woman, and I am not. And instead of actually having a date on Qixi, I decided to take a bus to Jintan and walk to a small lake. What can I say? I’m sort of an emo dude sometimes. Besides, a nice bit of a water is always nice to look at when you want to contemplate things and stuff.

Yeah, but I didn’t get to contemplate things and stuff. Most of my trips to Changzhou’s westernmost district have been to wander around the downtown area and the parks next to it. This time, I decided to go south of the bus station and the district’s Wuyue Plaza. This whole area is either under construction, or the land is open and awaiting development. When I finally got to Qianzi Ecological Park, I noticed a smaller, sillier park within it.

Themed parks or sections of a park is not anything really new in this end of China. However, this one was gaudy in an aged-and-weathered looking way.

Then, I perhaps saw what has got to be the silliest thing in Jintan. Then, I perhaps saw what has got to be the silliest thing in Jintan. A public bathroom with loved inspired architecture. The theme did not carry into the bathroom. I know. because I personally inspected and used said restroom. Then, I perhaps saw what has got to be the silliest thing in Jintan.

A public bathroom with love-inspired architecture. I checked — the men’s room, of course — to see if the theme carried on with the internal decor. It didn’t.

For the Love of LeBron and Tacos

So, what does tacos, Changzhou, and LeBron James have in common?

If you asked me this question yesterday, I would have been totally clueless and perplexed. I might have even shot you a rather pissed off look. I may have ripped some hair out while seething. However, now I know the answer. What do they have in common? There’s a dude in Wujin who apparently loves eating tacos, and LeBron James is his hero.

He has a shop, Taco James, on Wujin Wanda’s pedestrian street that is not that far from Shane English. All the decor is related to either Kobe or the Lakers. In Changzhou, the rumors of potential tacos tends to spread rapidly, and I was surprised I had never heard of this place. Turns out, the owner told me that he opened only a month ago.

As I said, Wujin Wanda Plaza walking street, but hidden behind an escalator. And do I see guacamole on that stand-up billboard?

So, enough of my jibber-jabber. Are the tacos any good? Before I answer that, I am going to say what I said the last time I posted about tacos: the debate over what is or isn’t an authentic taco bores me to death, as I am only concerned whether or not what I am eating tastes good.

I tried two types. One beef and one chicken. The toppings are not set on the menu. There’s a separate menu of “sauces” to pick from, and this allows you to customize. So, I chose salsa and sour cream — yes, actual sour cream.

The ground beef and chicken both seemed seasoned satisfactorily. Now, somebody might look at the above photo and wonder if a flour tortilla around a corn one might be overkill. Actually, it isn’t. Actually, it’s quite brilliant. Hard-shell tacos sometimes tend to crumble and fall apart while you are eating them. The outer soft tortilla keeps everything together should the corn shell shatter while you’re munching.

Here we have chips and salsa. The salsa is legit. If there is one complaint that I had on this surprise, first, accidental visit, it is this.

Yes, a cartoonish LeBron James eating a taco is the mascot / logo. That’s not my complaint. That is actually quite cute and charming.

The menu has absolutely no English, so you have to use the camera option on your translation app. The above is fairly simple: beef, chicken, steak, and shrimp — in that descending order. The separate sauce menu got a little mangled on my phone. Plus, the owner has poor English skills. Talking to him requires a little bit of patience and using a voice translator on your phone. And don’t get me wrong. Despite the language barrier, he seems like a very cool guy, so in a very friendly way, I did suggest that if he was interested selling foreign food to foreigners, a bilingual menu would be a very good idea. Regardless of that, I am looking forward to going back. Are these the best tacos in the world? No. Of course not. But Changzhou is a veritable taco desert, and Taco James satisfactorily scratches this food itch in my book. That’s alright by me.

Wujin’s Turkish Place

Wujin in 2020 is so not the Wujin of 2014 and 15. That’s when I lived down there, and your western food options basically consisted of Monkey King, Jagerwirt, or Chocolates. Kaffa opened, and that gave a bit of scope to a part of the city were “foreign” mostly just meant Japanese or Korean cuisine. Back then, a reason to go to Xinbei was actually quite salivating, because that’s where Changzhou’s one and only Turkish eatery existed. Going up north meant you could actually have hummus and a doner kebab at Istanbul Restaurant. Years ago, I used to dream up excuses to come to Xinbei just eat Turkish food. Well, times do change.

Eventually, I moved to Xinbei, and I actively have taken Istanbul Restaurant for granted. Recently, Wujin got a brand new Turkish eatery called Pistachio. And in an ironic turn, I actually dreamed up an excuse to go to Wujin just so I could go there and try it out. So, how did it go?

Well, here is a feta cheese plate with a wrinkled olive floating in a dipping sauce. That is meant to sound more descriptive than sassy. Also, if you consider that feta is one of the rarer cheeses in Changzhou, this is actually appealing. One of the only places I’ve actually found real feta has been in Metro, and that was in a jar of oil with olives and spices.

Pistachio has most of the traditional dipping sauces. The hummus was particularly good. But, the biggest test of a Turkish place usually comes down to the doner kebab meat.

I went for a beef and cheese fold over, and it was pretty good. However, this brings up an obvious question. How does it compare to Istanbul Restaurant in Xinbei? I would rate the two as pretty much the same. They’re both good and one is not better than other. However, it should be noted this opinion comes after only an initial visit and trying a main dish that is on both menus. All I know is that next time I am in Wujin, I am going to be highly tempted to return to Pistachio.

Exploring the Dragon City