Tag Archives: Restaurants

Soupy Blood and Guts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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. 

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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This is Canal 5

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Changzhou is a big city by western standards. The thought of that usually hilarious to local Chinese. For example, how many Changzhous can you fit into a Shanghai or Beijing? However, since this blog was originally envisioned as a detailed, definitive “Changzhou Encyclopedia,” and sometimes, that means taking a step back and giving a general description of parts of the city that locals and long term expats take for granted. So, with that in mind, this is Canal 5 …

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Contemporary urban China gets a lot of flack / criticism for rampant demolition of historical sites. Sometimes, this is not true. Sometimes, older places get renovated and repurposed. This especially true with factory locations. And that is what has happened with Canal 5. I used to be a textile factory, and now, with a bit of municipal funding and a bit of effort, it has been spun into a multi-purpose cultural space.

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It’s one that has also retained its original industrial character. Old machines and machine parts sit around here on display as if were modern art.

 

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But this is also a place that you can find art galleries.

 

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And a theater — which a friend pointed out why Canal 5 has a statue of Shakespeare. The placement is not as random as one might think.

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And, the area is also the home to bars and other places to drink and eat.

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But the truth of Canal 5 is this: it’s still a work in progress, right now. Not everything is open. You still hear the clank and buzzing of construction during daylight hours. However, there are a lot of things open here. Plus, there are a number of smaller bars open outside this “creative campus.” And, that’s municipal labeling on the signage around there, not my language. In short, if you live near the city center, this a place to potentially spend some time in either the daytime or night.

Canal Five is next to — wait for it! — a canal. The closest landmark the Zhonglou Injoy Plaza shopping mall. If you walk west and pass under the overpass you will find said canal. If you follow the road adjacent to the canal, you will pass a number of small bars and eventually find it. Show this Chinese to a cab driver, and they should know where to go: 运河5号.

 

All You Can Eat Japanese at the Wujin Hilton

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In the Hutang part of Wujin, The Hilton is a lot like other international hotels found in Changzhou. By this, I mean there are several different restaurants inside of it: Western, Chinese, and Japanese for example. Like other hotels, they also have all-you-can-eat specials where you can stuff yourself silly. For 198 RMB, that’s exactly what I did at The Hilton’s Red Bar — which offers on sushi, sashimi, and teppanyaki.

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They offer a wide variety of seafood. The raw salmon and other fish slices were fresh and expertly chilled. Their wasabi octopus provided a sharp kick without being overpowering. The oysters with fish roe were absolutely huge in size. Both the steak and the lamb dishes were both tender and juicy. Oddly enough, my all time favorite was the one that just doesn’t photograph well. Imagine a half a potato, cut into slices and smothered with a rich, creamy caviar sauce. I must confess: I ordered seconds on this.

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While Red Bar’s claim’s this is a buffet, it’s not in the traditional sense most Americans might think of. No sane person would ever compare a high-end hotel with a slop shop like Golden Corral. The Hilton has an all-day,  buffet where you can grab a plate, walk around, and peruse a myriad of options before making selections. The Hilton’s Japanese all you can-eat is slightly different. Here, you sit at a table, and the buffet selections are brought to you. Considering the hefty price tag, this personalized version of customer service is even better.

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HaiDiLao as a Vegetarian Option

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Being a vegetarian or a vegan in China poses unique challenges. For all you know, a delicious broadbean or bok choy dish could have been simmered in pork broth. Once a person with particular dietary needs settles into a city like Changzhou, the hunt for potentially friendly eateries begins. There is one place, however, that can be a consistent convenience.

HiDiLao 海底捞 has a name that is kind of misleading. It makes it sound like a seafood hotpot. While you can order fish, it also just resembles a normal hotpot with ingredients like sliced mutton and beef. The last time I went there, the seafood options also seemed a little less prominent than my first visit. For example, there were no scallops available. Still, they offered the standard fish balls, as well as crab sticks and white-fleshed fish chunks. Like all other hot pots, there are also plenty of vegetables available.

However, there is another thing to consider. A diner can select what broth they can use. This has not been the case with every hot pot I have eaten at. The other great thing is that a patron can easily select non spicy soups. At my last visit, a friend and I had two options. One was a light water, ginger, and rice soup. The other was made from tomato. So, this is unlike the risk of ordering veggies and then seeing them served in meat juice.

The other thing to consider is the convenience. HaiDiLao is a chain, and there are locations all over Changzhou and even in other cities. In many aspects, it’s a friendly resturant when you are in a city you may not know all that well.

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Weird Name, Good Salad

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The name “Italian Duck Salad” strikes me as a little odd. Being half Italian-American, it is something I have never, ever heard about growing up. It’s never been mentioned in conversation with Italians, either. Duck is a meat I have seen more of in China than in the USA or Europe in general. When I saw this on a menu in Hutang section of Wujin, I was a bit perplexed. So, I ordered it.

This was at Eco, a new salad specialty place in the Grand Metropolis Mall. This is the part of the Golden Eagle center that didn’t shut down once Golden Eagle exited Wujin. For another point of reference, RT Mart shares the same premises. Eco is on the upper most floor and in the Spade Street thematic area. But enough of that. Was the salad any good?

Apart from the weird name, yes. The only thing remotely Italian here may have been the rotini pasta noodles and the dressing. The rest was a mix of greens, tomatoes, and corn. Oh, and there was the duck meat. It was served tender and cold, which suited the salad nicely. The more important question would be: would I order it again? Yes, I would.

Places like this are important for Hutang. There are not a lot of options in the area beyond Jagerwirt, Kaffa, and others. This is often something that people in Xinbei take for granted. I know this because of having lived in Wujin for two years. So, whenever a new place like this opens, it feels like a major event. Try the place out. The ingredients are fresh and low in sodium. The menu has pictures and is in English. The manager also has excellent English skills.

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Caribbean Fish at Secret Recipe

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“Hey, Rich, what’s Caribbean food like?”

“I don’t know. Never had it.”

“Didn’t you live in the Bahamas at one point?”

“No, I lived in Bermuda. And before you go there, Bermuda is not in the Caribbean — it’s 700 miles off the coast of North Carolina. It’s closer to the USA, actually.”

This is a conversation I have had a few times over the years. In a way, I am being a bit too technical. While Bermuda is not in the Caribbean, it does have a “sorta” cultural affinity. I have been told that Bermudian food is “sorta” close, but I wouldn’t know; I have no point of comparison. Eating at Secret Recipe reminded me of this.

They have a fish dish that’s labelled “Caribbean,” and I couldn’t honestly say if it was authentic or not. However, eating it did remind me a little about Bermuda. There, local food is mostly fresh ocean fish with a bit of sauce on it. And that’s what Secret Recipe served me: a generic tilapia-like white fish with a light cream sauce on top. And, while it was not great, it was good enough to bring me back someday to eat it again when I want an easy “not Chinese” fish dish.  The fish itself is served on a bed of french fries, and both the sauce and the fish’s juices soaked down into potatoes and giving them a unique flavor. I’m into that sort of thing, because I do like having unusual things on fries.  The plate comes with a small side salad, and the cream sauce also works as a nice, warm dressing. So, I mixed the fish with both the fries and the lettuce and tomato.

Secret Recipe is fairly trusty, and sometimes the allure is more the convenience. It’s hit and miss with some expats. Some like the place, and others don’t. To each their own.  It’s a Malaysian chain that’s quite common in the region, and it’s a safe choice when travelling in a big Chinese city you may not know much about. The food is pretty much fusion between Asia and the western cuisine. Changzhou actually has two of these places. One can be found in Xinbei — inside the Lafu supermarket at the TV tower. Wujin’s Secret Recipe is located near Starbucks in the Injoy Mall.

Blue Marlin’s Steak Toast

IMG_20160503_023212Even when Jack’s Home was spiraling out of business, they did one thing consistently well: steak toast. When their hamburgers and their attempts at German food got weird, the steak toast remained consistent and reliable. It got to the point where ate only that and ignored the rest of the menu.

So, what was this dish?  Imagine two small pieces of sirloin on two toast slices. One had Hollandaise sauce on it, the other had Bernaise. A side of french fries came with that. Whenever I ate this, I used to love to mop up the remaining sauce with my leftover fries. And then, Jack’s went out of business, and I lost access to one of my favorites go-to dinners. I grew to miss it. Chocolate’s didn’t have it, Monkey King didn’t have it, and Jagerwirt didn’t have it either. That pretty much meant no steak toast in Wujin.

Now, I’m in Xinbei, and recently rediscovered it again.  It’s actually better than what Jack’s Home could ever do, and keep in mind that I really liked eating it there. The recently relocated Blue Marlin offers this dish. They used to be near Candle’s and a bunch of other bars. Now, they can be found at the Rise Sun Manhattan Plaza.

As for the food, I had it steak cooked medium. Both the sauces and the sirloin’s juices didn’t make the toast soggy. At first, I wished there was a bit more of the two sauces, but I realized that anymore would have been too rich and stomach upsetting.

There is another reason why I love this particular menu item. It’s affordable, and I am a notorious cheapskate. Lets say you are a steak lover, but you don’t want to dish out 150 to 300 RMB and upwards on a slab of beef. Let’s also say you really don’t care whether something is “Angus” or “grass fed” or not. Then, this is something for you. You don’t need to celebrate or have a special occasion to eat it.