Saturday, September 17, 2011
Beijing Food Trip - Part 1: Itinerary and Hotel
This latest series of articles is an account of our 6-Day Food Trip in Beijing, as the last segment of our 16-day overland journey across Northern China.
Being a food enthusiast with a particular interest on Asian cuisines, I've had Beijing on my to-do list for years. For months leading up to our departure my mouth would water at the thought of the crispiness of fruit-wood-roasted duck skin, the paper-thin slices of baby lamb in a hotpot, or the sweet spiciness of a whole deep-fried yellow fish. The allure of Beijing's sophisticated flavours and exotic ingredients prompted me to get serious on research and planning, in an attempt to fit the essential sights and flavours into our limited time and budget.
This article documents our trip-planning in summer 2011. We first came up with a list of the various categories of Beijing cuisine we considered essential for a full culinary experience, then consulted the grand daddy of China's food review sites, DianPing.com (in Chinese) for recommendations. Our list of top restaurants was then merged into our itinerary of essential Beijing sights.
Authentic Beijing flavours at reasonable prices were our main focus. Though many of the reviewed restaurants can be considered at or near the top of their categories, our average price per meal came to less than RMB 90 (CAD$14) per person.
Our short-list of candidate restaurants included:
- Dadong (see review; highest review ratings according to locals)
- Bianyifang (see review; unique 600-year-old recipe)
- Quanjude (most famous of all Peking Duck restaurants)
- Liqun (atmospheric and popular with foreign tourists)
Lamb Hotpot (Shuan Yang Rou)
- Hongyuan (see review; highly recommended by locals)
- Jubaoyuan (highly recommended by locals; slightly inconvenient location)
- Tianyishun (specializes in lamb spines; very inconvenient location)
- Donglaishun (most famous of hotpot places; largely disregarded by locals)
- Najiaxiaoguan (see review; highly recommended by locals)
- Guoyaoxiaoju (also recommended by locals)
- Tanjiacai (famously expensive; mixed reviews by locals)
- Huguosi Xiaochi (see review; highly recommended by locals)
- Heyizhai (see review; another breakfast spot near Ping'anli)
- Daoxiangcun (see review; 120-year-old Chinese bakery recipes)
- Tianfuhao (see review; 270-year-old pork elbow recipe)
- Baodu Zhang / Baodu Feng / Longshengming (famous for beef tripes)
- Jiumen Xiaochi (popular with tourists; largely disregarded by locals)
Other Beijing Cuisines
- Shaguoju (see review; 270-year-old clay-pot dishes)
- Duyichu (see review; 270-year-old Shaomai dumpling specialist)
- Tianjin Baijiaoyuan (see review; specializes in Jiaozi (ie. Gyoza))
- Beipinglou (Old restaurant and noodle house chain)
- Laohuji (famous for old Beijing recipes and noodles)
- Laobeijing Zhajiangmian (popular noodle house)
- Guijie Tongle Fanguan (late night dining for everything spicy)
Fitting our top restaurant choices into a tour of the essential Beijing sights, our itinerary became:
DAY 1: Arrive and Check-In – Dinner: Peking Duck @ Bianyifang (Metro Line 2 Chongwenmen) - After-dinner stroll at Olympic Park (Metro Line 8 Aotizhongxin)
DAY 2: Breakfast @ Huguosi Xiaochi - Dashilan Old Street (Metro Line 2 Qianmen) - Brunch: Shaomai Dumplings @ Duyichu - Tiananmen Square (Bus #Zhuan1) - Forbidden City (Bus #Zhuan1) - Dinner: Lamb Hotpot @ Hongyuan (Bus #5) - After-dinner stroll around Houhai
DAY 3: Breakfast @ Huguosi Xiaochi - Old Hutong Alleys at Luoguxiang (Bus#118) – Lunch: Jiaozi Dumplings @ Tianjin Baijiaoyuan (Metro Line 4 Xidan) - Summer Palace (Metro Line 4 Beigongmen) – Dinner: Imperial Cuisine @ Najiaxiaoguan (Bus 696)
DAY 4: Take-out breakfast @ Huguosi Xiaochi - Hike the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai (organized by Downtown Hostel) – Pack-Lunch: Chicken Wings from Tianfuhao – Dinner: Clay-pot Dishes @ Shaguoju (Metro Line 4 Lingjinghutong)
DAY 5: Breakfast @ Huguosi Xiaochi - Saturday Market at Panjiayuan (Metro Line 10 Jinsong) - Lunch: Quick meal @ Beipinglou or equivalent - Temple of Heaven (Metro Line 5 Tiantandongmen) - Last-minute Shopping at Wangfujing/Dongdan - Dinner: Peking Duck @ Dadong (Metro Line 2 Dongsishitiao) - Night Market at Donghuamen (Metro Line 1 Wangfujing) if legs permit
DAY 6: Brunch @ Huguosi Xiaochi or Heyizhai - Depart to Airport
Searching for an authentic local experience as usual, we decided to skip formal hotels and stayed in one of Beijing's traditional Siheyuan courtyards, located within a tree-lined neighbourhood of Hutong alleys.
Hotel Review: YUEBINGE (Beijing Houhai Courtyard Inn)
Address: 89 Mianhua Hutong, Xicheng District, Beijing
Price: RMB 200 for double room, private shower/toilet, summer 2011
Website/Map: Booking page from CTrip.com
Directions: Yuebinge is a 5-minute walk northeast of Ping'anli station. Exit the station's northeast entrance heading north, and turn right at the first street (Huguosi Street). Turn left on Miaohua Hutong (first 4-way intersection). Yuebinge is 100m down the street on the left side, with a red door.
Like Kyoto's Machiya-turned-guesthouses, Beijing's Siheyuan guesthouses have become a mainstream choice for travelers. Once the predominant form of housing over most of Northern China, only 20,000 of these courtyard houses remain within central Beijing, mostly located in older, peasant neighbourhoods where land prices have suddenly skyrocketed over the past 10 years.
And as property prices rise, most guesthouses converted from these courtyards command prices of RMB 400 to 1000 per night as of summer 2011. A small handful of guesthouses / hostels still offer double rooms with private bathrooms for RMB 200 or less, and we chose the one closest to a subway station. Known in Chinese as Yuebinge (aka. Beijing Houhai Courtyard Inn), the guesthouse was attractive to us for several reasons:
- 5-minute walk to a subway station (Ping'anli Station on Line 4)
- 3-minute walk to one of Beijing's best eateries for traditional breakfasts (Huguosi Xiaochi)
- 20-minute walk to the live music bars at Houhai lake
All guest rooms faced the centre courtyard in typical Siheyuan fashion. Rooms were simple but contained the essentials of air-conditioning, satellite TV, and a spacious shower and toilet. No fridge though, which meant no spoilable food in the room and walking to the neighbourhood store for cold beer. The owner seemed to be willing to rent out his washing machine for a nominal fee, but most guests simply hand-washed clothes and used the guesthouse's clotheslines to air-dry for free.
One more piece of Mantou bun please! The owner just brought home this little puppy three days before our arrival, and the little guy hilariously attemped climbing into our room over the Chinese door sill and got his belly stuck while on top of the sill. He also seemed to have a fondness for our take-out breakfast items from the locally popular Daoxiangcun bakery.
Yuebinge's location makes it a good base to experience life in a typical "Old Beijing" neighbourhood, providing that you're not too picky about in-room amenities. Subway is just a 5-minute walk away to reach Beijing's major sights. The little Hutong alley outside the guesthouse is full of barbers, watermelon-selling vans, funeral clothing for the dead, and other interesting peasant shops. And most importantly, some of the city's best breakfast fare is literally around the corner at the famous Huguosi Xiaochi. It simply doesn't get much more authentically Beijing than this.