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Day 98 – Eating Nei Fu Style (Plus, Beijing’s Underground City, Sorta)

June 9, 2010

Dateline: Beijing, China – Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I got up early again today and watched Game 3 of the Lakers-Celtics series. I won’t trouble you with the details as if you care. You know how the game turned out and, if you don’t care, you won’t even notice.

A brief observation about ex-pat Celtic fans. I got a chance to see a few more at this game than the last because more people watched the game with me over breakfast. So far as I could see, I was the only Laker fan.

Boston fans complain a lot. For example, one guy spent the whole game whining about how Ray Allen sucked, even though: (1) he basically won Game 2 for the Celtics and (2) every time he fired up a shot, every Laker fan on the planet expected it to go in. The game was close almost the whole way and this guy would scream, “Oh my God! He sucks! Take him out!” every time Ray would touch the ball.

Boston fans also seem to believe that the world favors the Lakers. Celtic fans would cry foul play at every call that went against the Celtics. They’d scream at Laker players for flopping and bemoan the refs’ bias for the Lakers. At one point, a guy complained that no Celtics were being shown in a commercial featuring prominent past and present NBA stars even though it was a Nike ad featuring Kobe. It was almost sad how oppressed the Celtic fans feel, this despite the fact that they have a wealth of talent and are achieving beyond their wildest expectations—if you’d asked a Celtic fan if they thought they’d make the championship game two months ago, they’d have laughed in your face.

When the Lakers won Game 3, I quietly walked out of The Den choosing to revel in my team’s victory in silence. I’m still not convinced. While I root for the Lakers, I’d have bet on the Celtics when the series started. Nothing in this game made me want to change my bet.

After the game, I went to the Vietnamese consulate to drop off my passport to get a visa for Vietnam. I’m planning on going back in July and decided to get it done now instead of waiting for the end of the month in Nanning. If traveling has taught me anything, it’s that if you have a chance to do something now—take a picture, visit a museum, buy toilet paper—you’d better do it now because there’s no guarantee you’ll get a chance to do it later. The regret you feel for not doing something is infinitely more than doing something and having it not turn out “perfect.”

My passport safely in Vietnamese hands, I decided to hit Beijing’s Underground City. Apparently, in the 1960’s, Chairman Mao believed that the future was underground (probably something to do with nuclear war) so he had an underground city constructed beneath present-day Beijing. There are supposed to be thousands of kilometers of tunnels, some running to the Forbidden City, the airport and, supposedly, the city of Tianjin which is 130 km outside Beijing. Caverns containing shops, theaters, and hospitals. It sounded awesome.

I found the entrance in an anonymous-looking building in a small street behind some tall residential-looking buildings. Turns out it’s closed. When I walked into the office, I found four old people playing cards. When I asked about the underground city, one pointed at a sign on the front door which warmly welcomed me to the underground city, then told me that it was closed and that it would hopefully be open “maybe next year.” Fail.

I went back to the hostel and hung out until dinner. My friend Lillian and her language partner Yoyo met me on Dongzhimennei Dajie more commonly known as “Ghost Street” because of all the red lanterns hung out in front of the restaurants. Here, locals dine on all manner of Chinese cuisine from different parts of the country, most sitting out on tables and chairs set up in front of the restaurants.

Our destination was a bit more upscale. Wuyutai Neifu Cai specializes in Nei Fu style Chinese food. It has a fancy entrance and a stage area for performances. It does not have any outdoor seating.

I had a list of three things that a food critic recommended that visitors try. Two were straightforward: buckwheat noodles and spareribs. Right off the bat, we knew we were in trouble. Yoyo is local Chinese. While the buckwheat noodles were straightforward, she couldn’t find spareribs on the menu. We ordered something that looked close.

Even worse was finding the pork belly. According to Yoyo, Chinese do not differentiate between different cuts of animal meat. There’s just pig meat and pig bones. “Pork belly” is much too specific. We ended up finding it based on the pictures. The English name of the dish confirmed Yoyo’s contention. The dish was called “Meat served with Pancakes.” The menu did not even identify that the meat was pork. Guess Chinese just go by what’s edible (everything) and what’s not (everything else).

The meal was quite delicious. Unfortunately, when the staff saw me taking pictures, they told us that photos were not allowed. I snuck a few pictures, but they turned out a lot blurrier than normal. Yoyo also pointed out that we made terrible rule breakers because every time I took a picture we all stopped talking and then giggled when I quickly hid the camera. I think that’s what’s poker players call a “tell.”

The pork belly was succulent and very rich with almost equal amounts of fat and meat. It’s a good thing they were wrapped in the pancakes similar to those used for Peking duck, otherwise it would have been like munching on straight butter.

The highlight by far was the buckwheat noodles. They were hearty with an earthy flavored broth. They felt rustic but somehow sophisticated. I think it’s because, even though they felt substantial, they didn’t feel starchy or wheaty, which sometimes can happen when you have noodles in a thinner broth.

In addition to the two highlights, we also had turnip cakes, meat in pepper oil, and a vegetable salad which, for some reason, had hunks of papaya in it. All good. Also, way too much to eat and more expensive than my backpacker budget normally allows.

No matter. It was a good experience.

When we hit the street we decided to finish our meal with the opposite of upscale. I guess Beijing (perhaps all of China?) has a thing for a yogurt drink served in a brown glass jar with a thin paper lid. To drink, you just punch a straw through the top and sip away. It’s supposed to help with digestion. I liked it just because it was a bit sour.

Note that the glass jar is not clear and the yoghurt is not brown colored—that’s just the glass. I kept expecting to see the brown draw down as I sipped. Nope.

You can return the jar to the purveyor or you can take it home. Lillian said she’s found quite a few good uses for the things.

High class, street. All in one night. Doesn’t get much better than this.

GALLERY: Click through to see more pictures of Ghost Street and of Nei Fu food.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. sally permalink
    June 13, 2010 11:27 pm

    I think all celtics player should deserve an Oscar for their performances. Such moaning and taking time getting up and paul pierce on a wheelchair. Srop being a baby! Grab your balls and man up!

    • June 16, 2010 9:05 pm

      Have a hard time with all the flopping period. I feel like I’m watching a soccer match.

  2. June 15, 2010 8:41 am

    So far, your gut feelings about the basketball finals are looking good……

    • June 16, 2010 9:13 pm

      This series is like watching a brilliant, philosophical manic-depressive with ADD try to explain the point of life–one second I feel depressed, the next I feel uplifted, then depressed all over again, and finally just confused.

      Game 7 tomorrow morning. Have no doubt that I will be watching.

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