This was the case a few nights ago. Our friends S and K had been in Beijing for over a month, and it was their last night in the city. During their time here, they have visited just about every single vegetarian restaurant in the city. (If you have ever wondered what it is like for a vegan to travel in the Meatlover's Republic of China, visit S's blog.) When they suggested going out to Sichuan for one last meal together, I naturally expected a vegetarian Sichuan restaurant.
The restaurant (Yuxiang Renjia) turned out to be a regular omnivore's joint, and one that Jacob and I had already eaten at twice. On both previous occasions, the food was pretty good, but not impressive. We had eaten 口水鸡 koushui ji (mouth-watering chicken), mapo doufu, sizzling beef with peppers, and a lot of other unmemorable meaty dishes (obviously, since I can't list them.)
What was different this time was that we ordered all vegetarian dishes. That is, if you leave out the possibility that anything could have been cooked in a meat broth, which S and K have decided long ago to stop worrying about, to keep their sanity intact.) Who knew that a restaurant that turns out mediocre meat dishes, a staple of Sichuan cooking, could also produce much better vegetarian food?
We started off with a dish of smoked tofu with a scallion, garlic, chilli oil. (Somehow, smoking gives tofu the best texture.) For me, that was the highlight, but the food that followed was also very good. Asparagus and mushrooms were simply stir-fried, a healthy alternative to sauce-laden Sichuan dishes. We ordered another tofu dish that came in a sweet-and-sour sauce; the tofu's texture and appearance was more like very soft scallops, with a creamy soy milkish center.
I had eaten scallion pancakes (葱油饼 congyoubing) many times before in my life, but they have always been flat. The scallion pancakes at Yuxiang turned out to be puffy, like Indian poori. It had the extremely thin crispness of a poori, but the scallion-y taste of the 葱油饼 I ate all throughout childhood at home and at Chinatown dai pai dongs.
The short trip down memory lane was cut short by the corn fritters, that actually look more like Chinese pancakes, and were sliced up like Chinese pancakes, but were made with cornmeal and had bits of kernal inside. They were quite sweet, and tasted like they should be served at a US Southern roadside diner instead of a Sichuan restaurant in China.
Now I know that when I venture off the meaty path at this neighborhood restaurant, things get a lot more interesting.
Yuxiang Renjia Hepingli Nankou, across from the Guojia Linye Ju, Chaoyang District 朝阳区和平里南口国家林业局对面