We were walking by the Zhongyou Department Store tonight when we saw the familiar lights and crowds that indicated excellent street food was near. That area, near the 77th Street Underground Mall and an underground arcade, was full of kids and 20-somethings lining up for delicious, cheap eats. Or rather, crowding in and pushing forward for delicious, cheap eats. Forming orderly lines for anything here is not exactly ingrained into the national psyche.
Of course, big crowds are usually helpful in judging which stand has the best food. At Tiānxià Tèsè Miàn 天下特色面, about 10 or 15 people were vying for who would be next for an order of kebabs or spicy noodles. We pushed in as well, and were pushed aside by the next couple. In this type of situation the best thing to do is be patient and hold your ground. Waving money, particularly exact change, helps the vendor notice you.
We glanced at the menu but ordered what everyone else was ordering, which was suànlàfěn 酸辣粉, or spicy and sour noodles. Almost everyone in front of us added an ice-cream-scoop size dollop of chilli sauce on their noodles. We added just a large spoonful. As for the taste? Hot, hot, hot, but well-balanced by the sour kick of vinegar and the crunchiness of roasted peanuts.
We ate like most people who couldn't get a seat in the 5-table dining area: standing. Others found seats on concrete blocks on the sidewalk. The street was filled with bright lights, the thumping sounds of Numa Numa sung in Mandarin, and hip kids slurping noodles amidst construction debris. What an iconic scene of modern Beijing.