Category Archives: Restaurants

Vietnamese at Wujin Wuyue

Colonialism and imperialism has a warping effect on the occupied culture. Consider Vietnam. Before defeating the United States of America in 1973, they had to throw out the French in a 1954 war of independence, effectively saying “Frenchie, go home — but leave all your baguettes, pâté, and coffee behind.” The French, by no means benevolent overlords, did actually introduce some things that the locals grew to like. As a result, Vietnamese cuisine reflects subtle French influences while retaining fundamental Asian characteristics.

Consider a bahn mi. It involves a sliced open baguette that is stuffed with Vietnamese pickled vegetables, pork, and pâté as a condiment. This sandwich showed up in Saigon during the 1950’s, and as noted, it’s a decade with a decidedly hostile resentment towards French occupation. People were shooting and killing each other, but your local run-of-mill-freedom fighter / sympathizer were still chomping on baguettes in places like Saigon.

I first learned about Vietnamese food back in 2015, nearly a full year after I had moved to Changzhou. On BBC Travel, I had read an article positing the question “Is the bahn mi the world’s greatest sandwich?” I was intrigued, after all, I am American, and sandwiches are a staple food. In places like New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia — cue some sarcasm here — they are actually worshipped and rhetorically fought over everyday. Ask a New Yorker which deli cures the best pastrami or corned beef and makes the best Reuben; you will get a tirade.

Pastrami Reuben piled high, as it should be.

So, I found myself intrigued and desperately wanting to find and try a bahn mi. At the time, I couldn’t find any Vietnamese places in town. Over the years, I actually found excuses to go to Shanghai and hunt down this legendary sandwich. I found some good ones, and I found mediocre as well. The best I actually tasted was in the Hongqiao airport. From time to time, Vietnamese places have popped up around town, but much like Singaporean and Malaysian joints, they didn’t seem to stick around for too long. Even more frustrating, none of those places sold a bhan mi. Currently, there is one pho place next to the movie theater in the Jiu Zhou New World near downtown. Last time I ate there, I wasn’t all that impressed. Recently, I found a new-to-me pho shop.

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Rice Paper is on the uppermost floor on Wujin Wuyue Plaza. Even early into the dinner shift, this place was packed with a waiting list. That’s not something I could say for the other place in the New World mall. A packed house with butts in seats is always a good sign.

So, how was the food? My dining partner and I started with shrimp spring rolls.

This is well and nice, but when it comes Vietnamese restaurants, the primary question usually asked is “Okay, but how is the pho?” I opted for beef although there were also seafood options available.

Lean beef,
Condiments to gussy up your pho.

As pho goes, this was relatively light and easy. The slices of beef had not a lot of fat, and this more of a China thing. Fatty meat ends up in a lot of noodle soups, and thankfully Rice Paper doesn’t make that mistake in trying to cater to Chinese customers. All in all, it was nice, and I would reorder this again in the future. But, there was something here that I absolutely loved.

The Siagon chicken curry is something I would definitely return for. It tasted a little bit like yellow curry with plenty of potatoes. Only Vietnamese curry is closer to Indian than it is to Thai, and this gets back to the idea of French colonialism.

Curry is not a dish indigenous to Vietnam. During the 19th Century, France had land holdings in both India and Vietnam. However, the French didn’t trust the locals, and as a result, a city like Saigon ended up with an influx of Indian guest workers. Those are the people that brought curry to Vietnam. Eventually, like the French, this Indian population eventually departed, but they left their culinary influence behind. France didn’t bring curry to Vietnam, but it had a big part in facilitating that. This is the warping factor I mentioned earlier.

Either way, I am happy to know there is a nice Vietnamese option in Changzhou; I look forward to going down the menu and trying everything over the long term. However, there is one thing about Rice Paper that just infuriates me. It fits into the longer narrative of Vietnamese places in this town: plenty of noodles but no sandwich. No bahn mi. Booo!

Singaporean Food at Xinbei Wanda

Over the years, Changzhou seems to have an on-again, off-again relationship with Singaporean and Malaysian food. Years ago, both Xinbei and Wujin had Secret Recipe, a chain catering to Malaysian cuisine with some Singaporean and western dishes. Their lamb shank was pretty good. It was also this place were I had tried laksa for the first time. Tianning was about to get one, but then chain went out of business in Changzhou. No more Secret Recipe in this city. There was an iteration or two of other Malaysian or Singaporean-centric places. The most recently departed was located at on ground floor, exterior rear of Zhonglou’s Wu Yue Plaza downtown. For those in town craving this sort of cuisine, there is a reason to be happy again.

The fourth floor of Xinbei Wanda is home to 星洲小馆 aka Singapore Restaurant. Singapore is well known for it’s curry, and it would put it up there with Indian and Thai as some of the best in the world. Naturally, whenever I am trying a new-to-me place selling this cuisine, the curry is the first thing that must be tried — as a general quality determinant.

They were out of the their curry beef brisket, so I opted for the fish instead. This also had eggplant, tomato, okra, and slices of cinnamon bark. Most other Singaporean places I’ve been to, I always leaned towards brisket. This fish variety was not that bad at all. The fish itself was white meat without any bones, and it soaked in the curry very nicely. The next item was a ordering error.

Laksa is another signature dish that should be sampled up a first visit to a Singaporean joint. I actually pointed to this noodle dish on the menu, and somehow that got interpreted as fried rice. Still, it was good. Topped with meat floss, the rice also come with shrimp, ham, cashews, egg whites, peas, raisins, and chunks of pineapple mixed in . This taste ended up being sweet but in a subtle, non-overpowering way. Typically, there is one more dish that should be ordered on a first visit.

Hainan chicken. While this dish did originate on the Chinese island of its namesake, it’s considered a national dish in Singapore. It’s also very popular in Malaysia and other parts of Asia. Typically, the chicken is either poached or steamed and served cold. This leads to meat to tasting moist and juicy. Also, there are condiment sauces meant to gussy up the taste. One is green and involves basil and lemon grass, and the other is orange an has a spicy bite to it.

My dining partner preferred the green sauce, but I personally liked this more. Usually, I am not one for super spicy food, but the taste of this struck me as familiar. The more I dipped slices of chicken into it, it reminded me a lot of the chilies used to make American buffalo chicken wings. Once I realized this, I abandoned the green goop to my dinner pal and hogged the orange sauce for myself. The person I was eating with didn’t mind this at all.

So, is this place at Xinbei Wanda the best of Singaporean cuisine? No, but it’s pretty solid — especially if there are not a lot of other options around. Also, the menu is in both Chinese and English, so that’s convenient. I am definitely going back. I can’t wait to see what the curry beef brisket and the laksa noodle soup has to offer.

SILVER THREAD NOODLES 银丝面红汤

When I lived in Wujin, I used to ask my college students for recommendations about what was truly “local” Changzhou food. Most of them didn’t know what to say because 1) their English levels were so low and 2) most of them didn’t come from Changzhou. So, I used to get some silly answers like “Go to the top floor of Injoy.” One day, a friend brought me to Yinsi Noodles. Eventually, I was handed a bowl of noodles, and that became my first exposure to Changzhou’s food.

That was more than a couple of years ago, now. Recently, I returned to Yinsi and tried the same dish. Only, I went to a different location. This cafeteria style restaurant is a prolific chain with locations all over the city. It serves a variety of non-local dishes that can be easily found elsewhere.

So, if that is the case, what is so special about this place? A very cheap 5 RMB bowl of noodles.

The dish’s name is actually shared with the eatery. Yinsi Noodles in Chinese is 常州银丝面 chángzhōu yín sī miàn. The actual above noodle soup is 银丝面红汤  yín sī miànhóng tāng. The literal translation would be “silver thread noodles red soup.” The characters 银丝 refers to the actual noodles themselves. According to Baidu’s version of Wikipedia, the name comes from how the ingredients in the dough results in very white noodles.  The “red soup” comes from the broth base, which is made with soy sauce. The result is a slightly salty taste that never becomes too much.

You can also add a few things to the soup to customize the flavor a little more. If you look closely at the above, you’ll notice I chopped up a meatball and mixed it in. So, what else can I say?

This dish has been part of Changzhou culture for nearly 100 years. However, one should clarify one thing: only the recipe is that old. The current chain of Yinsi cafeterias doesn’t date back that far. The original shop, from all those decades ago, is also gone and lost to history. It used to be in what would become the Nandajie area of downtown.

ALL YOU CAN EAT AT POMEL

This post was originally published in October of 2018. This restaurant still exists.

“One day, I am going to try eel, but today is just not that day.” 

This is something I used to say while looking at a sushi menu. Essentially, I would be tempted to be adventuresome and try new things, but I would always chicken out in the end. This was seemingly a lifetime ago, back when I lived in North Carolina and New Jersey. Sushi places seemed few and far between, and I quite often had zero disposable cash. So, the fear was partly economic — why pay a lot of money for something I may not exactly like?

Times change, and now I am in Changzhou. Sushi isn’t really a hard to find, exotic item here. That’s especially true now that I live near Hanjiang Road / Japanese Street in Xinbei. While there are plenty of sushi options to pick from, one place has a great deal to consider.

Pomel has an all you can eat deal for 198 RMB. This is not a buffet, either. You basically have full run at the menu, and you can order multiple times. Both beer and sake are included. Upon a recent visit with a friend, we basically got to have our fill of sashimi…

If you think about how much sashimi grade salmon and tuna can cost, the 198 RMB price tag quickly pays for itself, and that’s not even factoring in beer and sake refills.

And, of course, it’s hard to go to a Japanese place and not order sushi. Then, there is another good aspect of an all you can eat deal.

You can try things out without the fear of wasting money. I have long gotten over trepidation surrounding eel. The friend I was dining with had already introduced me its yumminess on a separate occasion. However, this time, I had the opportunity to try my first couple of cups of warm sake. I also got a chance to sample sea urchin as part of a second sashimi platter. I appreciated the sake, yet raw sea urchin just really isn’t my thing. It’s got the appearance and consistency of — not to be gross — snot. However, I now can say been there, done that and move on. Again, that’s the value of this deal at Pomel — or any other Japanese all you can eat places — you can try things you normally wouldn’t if you were doing ala carte.