The thing about China is that the food comes priced at so many levels and is so unbelievably varied. If you want cheap food, a visit down to your classic Chinese food court and 12yuan could give you a gigantic bowl of rice, topped with two surprisingly delicious hot side dishes, or a whole bowl of wontons, or noodles. If you want fine dining, the table can overflow with unbelievably decadent dishes, with a price tag to match. Full time work meant I managed to explore the restaurants in the Sanlitun district fairly well but didn't get much opportunity to tote out my camera to document any (my Instagram, however, is a different story). This post, therefore, is very much a curated, shortened list of my favourite eats.
For an entire month and with a host family who definitely knows how to eat, I think this is a pretty short list. I may do an extended list, but without as many accompanying photos if there's enough interest. Most of these fit in a comfortable Australian student budget (50 - 100yuan per meal or $10 - $20AUD) without any difficulty at all.
It can be difficult to be in Asia as a vegetarian because the concept of being one remains very novel and meat or seafood-based stocks and products tend to permeate every level of dining. Located within Wudaoying hutong, Veggie Table is a popular vegetarian restaurant in Beijing. It serves entirely Western-inspired dishes instead of vegetarian Chinese food (which tends to heavily feature soy-based imitation meat). Think hummus, veggie hamburgers and salads. It's probably a good way to alleviate culinary-based homesickness though, as someone raised on my mother's 100% Chinese cooking since young, I have to say this was as novel to me as it probably is for most Chinese people.
I've been fooled several times by vegetarian restaurants because when they say 'mushroom burger', I envision a gigantic portobello mushroom taking the place of the steak (which I have had...once). The 'mushroom' in this case is a patty that tastes more like mashed chickpeas and not really mushroom-like at all. That being said, it was quite fragrant (with a lightness that isn't present in meat-based burgers) and filling. And you get to feel healthier. Or maybe more virtuous.
Sumi was one of my favourite culinary discoveries in Beijing and a convenient 5min walk from my workplace. Tucked in a small alley near Beijing Worker's Stadium, the slightly shabby surroundings conceals a quirky, surprisingly large space with super cute decorations. You'll be able to spot it by its bright yellow interiors. Go there for the amazing dumplings, which slightly resemble Shanghai's xiao long bao, filled with richly flavoured soup and generous fillings. Also go there for their eggplant (茄子), which are sweet, sour, slightly crunchy on the outside and soft inside, slightly spicy and utterly amazing, especially when piping hot. It's great value for money while also being good quality food - I can definitely say it's a bit of a hidden gem.
Beijing duck really counts as a tourist bingo (read: cliche) item but it has the potential to be so good that it doesn't really matter.
Unfortunately, the most famous Beijing duck restaurant turned out a little overhyped, despite the fact my host family took me to a less tourist-heavy branch, which would supposedly yield better dishes. The duck skin was well cooked and heavenly when dipped in white sugar, but the meat was quite dry and flavourless.
Li Qun was another popular Beijing duck destination recommended by my host family but it's not getting any points from me for the decor. This is a Beijing restaurant at its most 'rustic': an old house hidden away within a hutong that is quite a walk from the nearest subway stop. And when I say 'old', I mean communal drop toilets located in a separate outhouse down the a dark hutong outside the restaurant. This is not the place for a fine dining experience and while some may find it 'charming', I don't necessarily feel like a carefully preserved 'run down' vibe (with photos of famous visitors on the walls) makes an 'authentic' restaurant. It's simply a different kind of stereotype. That being said, Li Qun's duck was definitely superior to that of Quanjude (you can catch a glimpse in motion here). And, in the end, that's what matters, right?
MONGOLIAN LAMB BACK
This Mongolian-themed restaurant is a drive out into the outer 'rings' of Beijing. The Mongolian hut replicas are designed for a rowdy ten person+ party and features beautifully designed tablewear...except for the jarringly incongruous packaging of their chopsticks (my inner graphic design nerd is crying and itching to redesign it). The Mongolian lamb back is the specialty of this place and while it is not a friendly companion for your arteries or for any vegan friends, it's sure to delight the carnivores. The skin was so crispy and melt-in-your-mouth and the meat was incredibly tender. I maintain that cumin is one of the best spices for lamb and this did not disappoint. Another thing to try is Mongolian milk tea, which has the disconcerting sensory feature of smelling like sweet, fragrant milk tea but actually being savoury.
NANLUOGUXIANG COFFEE BUN
You will smell this, walking down Nanluoguxiang, long before you identify the small cafe responsible for these delicious coffee buns. You need to get this served hot - the sweetness of the light crust over the bread is balanced by an almost savoury cheese-y butter inside. It's a nutritionally insubstantial but oh-so-delicious snack.
Located up the street from the Lama Temple, these pork floss cakes are some of the best in Beijing. For those who aren't familiar with pork floss, it's basically dried, flavoured pork fibres (or beef fibres), which are extremely fragrant and flavoursome. Usually, they are used as garnishes on 'Chinese bread' but Bao Shi Fu coats a sponge cake like base with a layer of mayonnaise and presumably rolls the cake around in pork floss. If you're going to go for something like this, you want it to basically be as decadent as possible and Bao Shi Fu does not skimp out on its ingredients. The meat floss is very generous, the mayonnaise is generous and the resulting cake is a delicious combination of sweet and savoury and tastes great.
iCORNER MILK TEA
My love for pearl milk tea (note: pearls in particular) has a long history and quickly became apparent to anyone travelling with me and what better place to indulge completely in my 'guilty pleasure' drink than in China, where the average price is about 12yuan, or $2.50? While chains like It's Tea Time are in plentiful supply, I found iCorner in a mall in Xidan. It definitely looks like a chain but I didn't spot another branch anywhere else in China. It's famous for its Earl Grey milk tea and in Beijing winters, a warm, generously-sized cup of milk tea with pearls really hits the spot.
My rule of thumb is to avoid Western food when I'm travelling in Asia but sometimes...you just gotta take what's given. This restaurant was in 798 Art District (on the street with the caged triple dinosaurs) and, in a moment of oversight, I didn't get the name of the place but it's in the Western-looking tavern. This BLT (with chicken breast!) was surprisingly decent - generous with its ingredients and tasted quite as good as any BLT I've had. Granted, it was also Australia-priced (I think maybe $12AUD?) - but that's the price you have to pay if you've a hankering for decent foreign food in China. Which, in the broader scheme of things, isn't so bad, really.