Xihe Yaju restaurant. Frank Langfitt/NPR
When I first arrived in Beijing as a reporter in the late 1990s, a colleague took me to a nearby restaurant. We made our way through a maze of back alleys to an old private house.
We found the dining room — really an old bedroom — up a rickety staircase. The dishes — eight of them, handwritten on a menu — were cheap and tasty.
But soon, the restaurant was gone, razed to make way for a high-rise apartment building.
I returned to Beijing this year after five years away. In preparation for this month's Olympics, even more of the city was swept away. But my current favorite neighborhood restaurant, Xihe Yaju, still stands.
And in a city defined by change, the food is as good as ever.
The restaurant sits on the edge of Ritan — or Sun Temple — Park in Beijing's tree-lined embassy district. It's not famous, and most people outside the neighborhood have never heard of it.
But for a newcomer to town, it's a great place to start.
In fact, it's the first place I took my wife, Julie, when she arrived in Beijing in 1997. She was moving with me to China, sight unseen. I wanted to make a good impression, so I took her to Xihe Yaju.
One reason was the ambience. The restaurant is in a Ming Dynasty-style courtyard with vermillion walls and a gray, ceramic tile roof. From spring through fall, patrons lounge beneath shade trees, picking through dishes and downing mugs of Tsingtao beer late into the evening. The restaurant draws a mix of local Chinese, journalists, diplomats and the occasional movie star.
The other reason is the cuisine. The menu, which has 300 dishes, covers much of the country's culinary landscape, including Cantonese, Sichuanese and dishes from Shandong Province and Shanghai. It's also in English and has photos — another plus for someone new to town.
Some of the best dishes include sauteed shredded pork with soy sauce and spring onions, and sauteed mushroom with heart of cabbage. There's a great Mapo Tofu (braised bean curd with beef and chili). I'd also recommend the tangy, sweet and sour pork. It bears no resemblance to its American, food-court cousin, and you can order it off the menu.
Another good meat dish is grilled beef with black chili, served on a sizzling iron plate. Half the fun of this dish is in the presentation — waiters pour sauce on the hot iron skillet; diners have to lift up the table cloth to protect against the splatter.
Most of the dishes mentioned cost no more that $5 to $7. And you can finish it all up with a desert of fried steamed bread with sweet cream milk.
One of the things I have enjoyed about Xihe Yaju has been watching it evolve over time. When I first arrived, it was a simple place with no need for reservations. After a couple of years, the waitresses began wearing radio headphones.
Back then, I got to know the manager, Li Qi. He was an affable guy in his late 20s with a round face, a blazer and glasses. He was always trying to build the business and often asked me what foreigners looked for in a restaurant.
One evening, he stopped by my table and told me he was planning a Halloween party. Halloween, like most Western holidays, has no equivalent in Chinese culture. Li Qi was looking for insight. I tried to explain about trick or treating and dressing up.
Costumes, he said, he understood. He showed me a poster he'd prepared for the party. It was a man wearing a sheet.
Li Qi thought it was a ghost.
But the man was wearing a pointed hood. He was a Klansman.
I tried to explain the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Chinese. Li Qi's eyes widened and his face turned white.
I came back to the restaurant the next day. The poster was gone.
Xihe Yaju — Northwest Corner of Ritan Park, Chaoyang District, Beijing.
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and 5 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Reservations: 010-8561-7643 or 010-85611915
Web Site: http://www.xhyj.net