How could I not like a restaurant that has always greeted me with piles of chilli? And is that a rhetorical question?
Zhang Mama in Beijing’s Dongcheng (‘East City’) area, close by the Yonghegong (Lama Temple) and Confucius Temple, is a well-known and rather highly regarded Sichuan restaurant. Time and again I have gone to eat there (by now, twice at their original, twice at their new location), time and again I have wondered why I keep coming back.
Thing is, the food is like at mom’s.
If your mom is from Sichuan, cooks well, and likes chilli and Sichuan pepper but doesn’t necessarily like you all that much. Like so many a Sichuan restaurant, they love to incense the palate with an assault of chilli, if not both chilli and Sichuan pepper.
They use it so liberally that it makes for a great reminder that you are alive – but it has also made for many an interesting encounter.
First time I went there, not only did I have some help from a nice couple with whom I shared the table, but I also saw the girls on the next table tuck into the same dish of Zhang Mama’s short-fry, and quickly stop eating and call for a bowl of rice, fanning away the ‘flames’.
Last time I went there, I shared the table with a young couple from Hunan… and he ate on for a bit, she pretty quickly decided that no, she just didn’t want to go on eating. It was that same short-fried meat again, plus what is probably the best-known of the dishes there, the boboji, a stock of (chicken?) soup into which one adds whatever additions, mainly vegetables and tofu, one has picked out to add. The stock is very ‘ma’ and rather ‘la’, numbing and hot, however, and combining that with a hot dish like the short-fry makes for a rather painful eating.
I should know.
More than once, I ordered two dishes/plates plus their little bowl of dandanmian, Dandan noodles.
These thick and quite udon-like noodles are the delivery vehicle for a shock of ‘mala’ (numbing-hot) flavor oil. And here, that ‘soup’/’sauce’ (Chinese calls it ‘tang’ with the word for soup) is hidden at the bottom of the dish, so one needs to mix it up and over the noodles oneself, giving them quite a kick – but the further down one gets in the bowl, the more of that ‘tang’ is still delivered, and it just gets more pronounced whenever one eats from another dish, be that spicy or just the water among vegetables.
I love it, but I keep wondering if it isn’t a love that is a bit like the pleasure a ‘cutter’, a person who cuts him-/herself, gets from the pain they inflict on themselves.
The last time’s mapo doufu, which I just had to try and which they seemed to have all but forgotten (somehow, they took very long to get my order out of the kitchen that time), was telling for that. Not being able to mix it with anything anymore since the other dishes were already eaten, even with a (second) bowl of rice, it was such an assault on the senses that it wasn’t enjoyable anymore… and somehow nice, nonetheless.
My recommendation: Go there, at least once. Or whenever you’re feeling in a Johnny Cash (/Trent Reznor) state of mind, á “I hurt myself today… / to see if I still feel… / I focus on the pain… / the only thing that’s real…”
Much better to do that with chilli (and Sichuan pepper) than with drugs.
The older location in Fensiting Hutong seems rather more popular and has more of the atmosphere of a hutong restaurant. So, if you have to have that, go there.
The newer location about 10 minutes south the road (which starts as Andingmen Road but has become Jiaodaokou Road where the restaurant is, is more like other, standard Chinese eateries. In my opinion, though, the new location also tends to offer the greater chance of interesting insights into the kitchen (and of the chilli), gives an easier chance of getting a table, and even tends to have the better service.
The food is just as spicy here as there.