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Day 96 – Hunting for The NBA at Dawn (Also, Din Tai Fung)

June 7, 2010

Dateline: Beijing, China – Monday, June 7, 2010

Today was Game 2 of the NBA Finals. The second meeting between my Los Angeles Lakers and their archrivals, the Boston Celtics. As per normal, I planned on catching the game.

As per not-so-normal, I’m in China. This presents a couple challenges. First, the time difference. The game started at 8 p.m. Eastern time Sunday, which translates into 8 a.m. Monday morning Beijing time. Second, where to watch the game. I’m in a hostel dorm room, so that means no TV with satellite.

The first problem was easy. I got up at 7 a.m. this morning. For the love of the game, no? The second was a bit more complicated. When I’d gone out with Max on Friday night we’d happened upon a sports bar called The Den. They’re open 24 hours, which means they’d probably have a TV tuned to the world’s premier basketball league championship.

The problem was getting there. Armed with a map and knowledge of where on the map I wanted to go, I hopped in a cab filled with optimism. I wouldn’t need any Chinese to communicate because I had a Chinese/English map and a finger with which to point, right?

Wrong. The driver and I had a lively “conversation” about where I wanted to go. He looked at the map a total of eight times. I pointed at the same spot nine times. I repeated the name of the district printed in on the map. He repeated something that sounded kind of like what I’d said.

In the end, we got to an intersection I recognized and I had him drop me off. Total cost of that near misadventure: 15 rmb ($2).

The Den was open. An HD TV on the wall was tuned to the game. The feed was not, however, HD, which meant everyone looked fat and hazy. No matter. I could watch the game. Even though I was a bit late, I was the only one who settled in front of the TV.

The night before, I’d had visions of drinking mugs of beer while still half asleep. The Den is a sports bar, after all. What else was I supposed to order so that I could justify my seat?

Sadly, my excuse to get boozed before the double digits of the morning came up lame. The Den has a breakfast menu. Instead of Tsingtao, I had an omelet and orange juice.

What follows is a bulleted list of observations. If you’re more into food, feel free to skip ahead.

• The game video feed was from ABC, but the announcers were from the Philippine broadcast. The announcers sounded like they’d come from my family potluck. Weird. One announcer said the he expected a big game from Rasheed Wallace because he’d previously won a championship. Apparently these guys had only read the media guide and hadn’t spoken to any Celtics fans, who this season have learned not to expect anything from Rasheed other than a patch of white hair.

• Not only were the announcers Filipino, so where the commercials. One showed a group of men lovingly taking an egg and hand raising a rooster to become a cockfighter. Seriously. There was a scene where the smiling men unleashed their bird on an opponent in the middle of a horde of enthusiastic gamblers. The product: Sabong Nation. The slogan: The Winning Formula. The viewer: transfixed. Animal rights activists: absent.

• Ron Artest gives me heart palpitations. At one point in the first quarter, he caught a pass behind the three point line and dribbled more than four times. By the third dribble, I almost passed out I was so terrified. My favorite Ron Ron moment: when he dribbled around for 20 seconds when the Lakers were down 5 with 2:30 to go, all to just jack an off balance, long two-pointer. Do we really have two more years of this? It’s like watching a game with defibrillator paddles duct taped to your chest and a five-year-old’s finger on the charge button; you have no idea when you’re going to get the shock of your life.

• Every time Bynum or Gasol caught a pass I’d thrill a little. It’s been years since Kwame Brown, but I still instinctively expect every toss to a big man to turn into a turnover. Years of Hands of Stone Kwame will do that to you.

• The officiating was terrible. I’ve never seen so many “no touch” fouls. Guys getting ringed up even though they made negligible contact. Garnett, Kobe, Gasol, and Davis were all victims. Some seemed to be make up calls for previous bad calls. It was like watching a giant snowball of poop roll down hill—bad calls kept piling up on each other.

• The Lakers didn’t deserve to even be in this game. After getting destroyed by Ray Allen’s 27 first half points (why hasn’t anyone learned you can’t cheat inside when guarding him) Kobe almost single handedly dragged L.A. back in with a ridiculous three-pointer to end the half. Somehow the Lakers led for a minute in the third quarter. Eventually, though, they capitulated. Too many early mistakes to overcome. I’m tempted not to watch the next game. It feels like every time I’ve caught a game while overseas, they lose. I only get good results when I watch replays. This trip is beginning to make me superstitious.

• I had an iced coffee after breakfast. It was terrible. Weak and watery. The Vietnamese do it much better. Note: If you’re going to make an iced coffee, you need to start with boiling, thick, sludge coffee. If you just drop ice cubes in regular coffee, it tastes like backwashed java. Ick. I still drank the whole thing.

I left with a bitter taste in my mouth, unfortunately not from the coffee. I headed back on the subway. Unlike before the game, I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere.

After napping in the afternoon and doing some internet errands, I was ready for dinner. I opted for Din Tai Fung, a place renowned for its steamed buns. As with all things in China, it’s nearly impossible to find if you only speak English. I called the restaurant and spent 10 minutes on the phone trying to get directions. I gave up and asked a Chinese guy downstairs to help me out. Within a couple of minutes he showed me where to go on a map and wrote out the name of where I wanted to go in Chinese. It made me feel like a little kid who has to have his homework pinned to the back of his shirt.

For all you out there looking for directions to Din Tai Fung, let me help you out. I’m doing this because I was once like you, Googling the hell out of the name and the address, trying to find it on an internet map. No luck.

To get to Din Tai Fung, take the subway to Dawanglu station. Exit to Shin Kong Place which is sometimes referred to as China Central Place. It’s a high end mall near the northeast corner of the subway station. Walk through the mall north. You’ll get near the end after passing a bunch of cosmetic counters. Just when you’re about to exit, look for elevators to the right. Unlike the elevators in the main mall, these go to the sixth floor and all the restaurants. If all else fails, ask someone at Information using exaggerated gestures and unnecessarily slow English.

Doesn’t seem hard, but each step of those directions was hard won through trial and error. Learn from my mistakes. Or, ask for directions sooner than I did.

When I finally got to Din Tai Fung, I found the place buzzing with people. The menu has English and professionally produced pictures. I ordered half orders where I could, then waited for my food.

First up was shredded bean curd with bean sprouts. Basically, slivers of tofu with crunchy white veggies. This was surprisingly good, considering I ordered it just so I could have something with a vegetable in it. It was salty and a tad spicy, served cold. It was almost refreshing.

Next up were a half order of pork dumplings. These were small balls of pork and soup wrapped in steamed dough. Thanks to years of sneaking out for dim sum with another associate at my former firm, I knew that I was supposed put the dumplings in a spoon, pierce the skin to release the soup, then drizzle the spoon with hot sauce. From there, I pop the steaming dumpling in my mouth, chew, and sip at the soup left in the spoon. The pork was pretty standard. What set it apart was the skin of dough. It had body and a rich but subtle flavor of. . .dough, I guess.

While I slurped and poked, the pork buns came out. Just like the dumplings, the pork itself was good, but unremarkable. In fact, I think it could’ve used a bit more seasoning. The flavor was almost too subdued. The star, though, was the fluffy white bun. It was almost a meal in itself. A bit sweet. A bit salty. Never tough, even though I let the second one sit out for a few minutes as I polished off the pork dumplings. If you’d steamed up balls of the stuff, I probably could’ve eaten just that.

Finally, I ended with red bean paste buns. Same deal as above, but instead of a salty meaty center, I was treated to a sweet, deep red ambrosia. Here, subtlety was an asset. The red bean paste wasn’t too sweet. It had been mixed in such a way that there was no grit or graininess. It was smooth and silky and paired wonderfully with the fluffy, slightly sweet white bun.

Mission accomplished. And, like any good restaurant, there were a few items on the menu that I wanted to try on a return trip. It might just happen. It’s one of the few reputable restaurants in the city which I know how to get to.

GALLERY: Click through to see one or two extra pictures of food. Exciting, no?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Shu Shen permalink
    June 11, 2010 3:10 pm

    You could also go to the Din Tai Fung in LA. Some of the ambience, no doubt, is lost in the US versions, but I am told they are just as good as the ones in China and Taiwan.

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