The Yunnan folk music playing in the restaurant was so soothing that the cricket noises blended right in. Then Jacob snapped me out of my daze and pointed to the middle of the room. A middle-aged couple was lovingly playing with their pet cricket, which was sitting on the table in a tiny glass jar.
The cricket continued to chirp sporadically throughout our meal. While it's more common to hear car honks in the middle of Beijing than crickets, it was easy to pretend for a while that we were in rural Yunnan. The restaurant was decorated in bright yellows and reds, with Dai minority folk art on the walls. And we were about to eat hearty Yunnan fare.
We started off with a Dai mint salad, a salad composed entirely of mint leaves, with a little minced garlic, chilli, and vinegar thrown in.
"Wow," said Jacob, after his first bite. "It's good, but you'd have to really like mint."
Fortunately, I do like mint enough to fill up my whole mouth with them. But soon I found out that dipping the mint in the Cross-the-Bridge noodles made it even better.
Cross-the-Bridge noodles, or 过桥米线 (Guoqiao Miqian), is a Yunnan staple. The name comes from a story about a scholar who was studying for his exams by isolating himself on an island. His wife had a cross a long bridge every day to bring him meals, and was disappointed that all the food was cold by the time she reached him. Finally she discovered that she could keep her soup boiling hot by just covering it with a thin layer of vegetable oil. The scholar passed his exams (maybe these noodles are brain food?) and Cross-the-Bridge noodles became popular throughout the province.
Our waiter (who might also be the owner) brought out the boiling hot noodle soup on a tray along with little dishes of raw egg, chicken, fish skin, sprouts, and greens. After asking if we wanted everything in the soup (we did), he and his colleague emptied 7 or 8 dishes into the soup in lightning speed. The soup was still so hot that everything cooked right in the bowl. The noodles were tasty and the serving size so large neither of us could finish ours.
We also ordered some fried mantou. These mantou were more doughnut-like than other fried mantou served around Beijing, crispier and slightly sweeter. Instead of sweetened condensed milk for dipping, these fried mantou came with stir-fried beef with peppers and a lot of extra savory, meaty sauce.
By the end of the meal, the cricket in the center of the room was still chirping. Its owners, however, were now concentrating on slurping their own giant bowl of Cross-the-Bridge noodles.
Chahua Meizi Guoqiao Mixian 101 Di'anmenwai Dajie Xicheng District, Beijing