Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shao Shao Ke (勺勺客)

Shao Shao Ke (勺勺客)
#15 Lane 41 Ren Ai Road Sec. 2

We ate at this Shaanxi restaurant with delicious food on Saturday. I was so looking forward to it that despite my headache and tingling tongue from mouthfuls of crystallized ibuprofen, I made myself venture out anyway. I wasn't disappointed!

As I don't have any photos from the restaurant, I thought I'd share some of my pictures from Xi'an, which I visited in 2002 during my year in China. The one where I got pneumonia. Twice. And three of my teeth rotted from acidic water. The quality is not great, because the originals were scanned at a low resolution and have been transferred from computer to computer to facebook to computer several times.

I like how the poor evening light with my circa-2000 film (not digital) camera makes this photo look far older than it is.

You might know Shaanxi as the province of China that boasts Xi'an (or Chang'an), an old Chinese capital and one of the few large Chinese cities worth visiting*.

The food at Shao Shao Ke is from a range of regions, which makes sense as Xi'an was the end of the Silk Road through Western China, and as a large metropolis and capital it would have a lot of dealings with other parts of the region that is now unified China (unified against the will of many people, but unified nonetheless). Delicious spiced lamb kebabs and fried lamb and pork with cumin are a highlight - the Muslims out west may not have eaten pork, but I am all in favor of food syncretism. The non-Muslim Chinese eat a lot of pork, so taking the spice recipe from their trading partners out west and applying it to their most common meat is fine by me.

Even the terracotta warriors were cold on that snowy day.

The vinegary crunchy potato with chilis was also delicious, as was the "shao mo" - a lamb soup where you tear up two rounds of bread on your own, and they fill the bowl of it again and again with soup. Other dishes were similarly tasty - apologies for not having a clear memory, as I was dealing with a headache at the time - and the fried bread dessert was delicious. My students recommend trying the fried cheese dessert next time (I believe it's called "Fried Mozarell" on the menu). We also had northern Chinese style sesame buns with pork. Delicious, but this is one case in which I believe Do It True (都一廚) does a better job. Generally I was a bit disappointed in Do It True, but their fatty pork in sesame buns was delish. In all fairness, the food at Do It True was not bad at all; it's just that it is so over-hyped that when I got there and realized it's rather standard...well, I fell from the cliff of high expectations.

I am pretty sure you can also find this sign at the edge of the Cliff of High Expectations.

Dishes are not expensive, and sizes are small - you're not going to get a huge steaming platter of food meant to feed 20 with each one. I like this: generally, smaller plates of food means better food, cooked with more attention and care.

Don't believe the final paragraph of the review linked above: there are, in fact, dishes that you need to order in advance: the fried stuffed eggplant and fried stuffed egg, for example.

I think this is a geniunely lovely photo and the next time I am near my original film prints I'll scan a higher resolution copy.

Atmosphere was great: spacious enough to move around, but small enough to not feel like a sterile banquet hall (sorry, Celestial Restaurant, your food is great but your giant banquet table atmosphere is lacking). It's got an intentional cave-like feel, but with white walls so it doesn't feel claustrophobic. You can write on the walls, by the way. Strings of dried garlic decorate the stairway ledge. Call ahead for large groups; it's a large restaurant but by no means massive.

Whatever you do, make sure you try it. It goes on my list of "Best of Mainland Food" from this day forward**.

This, I suppose, is what little kids in Xi'an do for fun. There's nothin' more exciting than dragging broken plastic lamps around by their power cords!

*Not to totally denigrate China: when you can see past the roving clouds of smog, the Chinese countryside is lovely and the people who inhabit that countryside can be quite hospitable. Chinese cities, however, are another thing entirely. To put it mildly, I can't stand them. All the white tile and blue glass and gray skies, the rude people, spitting and exhaust fumes and acres of cement. Taipei has trees and parks. Most Chinese cities have paved esplanades and grayish stumps that cry, "I was once a tree". How sad.

Xi'an has some of this, but it's worth a visit regardless: it's the end of the Silk Road, so you'll see a lot of Central Asian influence, the city walls and bell tower, as well as a few pagodas and temples, are still intact, and of course there are the terra cotta warriors, often grouped in a tour with the bathhouse of Yang Guifeng (which is nice, but not a must-see) and the tomb of the First Emperor, which is fun to climb but also not a must-see. I climbed it in the snow.

** My "Best of Mainland Food" List:

Ningxia: Hui Guan

Beijing: Celestial (though I'm hoping to find someplace better) - see above

Shaanxi: Shao Shao Ke

Guangzhou/Hong Kong: haven't found anyplace exceptional yet

Shanghai: Shanghai Dumpling (need to make sure it's still there) - yes, it's just as good as Dintaifung. YES IT IS. And cheaper, too.

Harbin: Harbin Dumpling King (though the owner admits there's no real "Harbin" food, and he cooks classic, delicious food from across China)

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