Hole-in-the-wall restaurant leaves hole in the stomach

I’m a big believer in giving second chances. And if you’re a restaurant that serves great dumplings for less than $2 a serving, I’ll even give you a third, fourth and fifth chance even if the occasional batch leaves me feeling a little green.

Such was the case at my favorite neighborhood dumpling joint, 杭州小吃 (Hangzhou Snacks). The place has all the characteristics of a Chinese dive restaurant. Limited seating. Few spouts for hand washing. No bathroom. And dirt-cheap prices.

A middle-aged man runs the restaurant with his wife. He’s short on words and smiles but always remembers what I want: two orders of dumplings and a tall, cold bottle of Yangjing beer. The man often smokes cigarettes while he cooks, occasionally looking up at a TV mounted to the wall to read a headline on the 6 o’clock news.

The man takes care of the steamed buns and dumplings, while his wife boils the soups and serves the vegetable and rice dishes. She’s the charmer of the two, and not averse to greeting me with a smile when I settle my bill.

The dumplings are comfort food, the Chinese equivalent of my mom’s salmon patties and mashed potatoes. But for a foreigner with a weak stomach, eating there comes with a risk. As one of my friends eloquently put it: “I go there regularly. After eating their dumplings, I also have to go regularly, if you know what I mean.”

But, like a girl who refuses to leave her abusive boyfriend, I kept coming back, until a recent bout of food poisoning that forced me to see a doctor. His advice? Stay away from the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and street food. “Even we don’t eat that stuff,” he said.

That was two months ago, and I’ve since heeded his advice. Still, there are days when I pass by the restaurant, spot a bowl of fresh dumplings steaming up the window and think about stopping.

My heart says go, but my stomach says hell no.


Strawberry chunks forever

In the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Homeland Security officials, when asked to assess the threat of another attack, often responded: “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

The same can be said about food poisoning in Beijing. No Western diet can prepare a man’s stomach for the taste, smell and texture of authentic Chinese cuisine. Eat here long enough, and it’s only a matter of time until you’re staggering to the nearest toilet, puking yourself into a coma.

I didn’t get sick for the first eight months I lived in Beijing. It wasn’t because I didn’t take risks. I ate food I didn’t know existed (sea cucumber), bit a bird below the ankle (chicken feet) and tried without much luck to chew through undercooked bull intestines. Any part of an animal is fair game to the Chinese. “Are you going to eat that?” a co-worker once asked me over dinner, pointing with his chopsticks to the eyeball of a fish that had been picked to the bone.

I also tried as many different kinds of restaurants as I could. There’s a huge variety in the city, and with a little research you can find nearly any kind of ethnic food in the world.  Beijing has around 60,000 restaurants, according to a local English-language magazine. Assuming you dined out three times a day, it would take about 55 years to try every restaurant in the city.

How do I know where your feet have been?

I had probably tried less than 100 by the time I sat down for dinner at a nondescript seafood restaurant for a meal of oysters and scallops. Cooked and coated in butter, they were delicious. As it has a tendency to do, the underdeveloped part of my brain that tells my hands to stop putting food into my mouth took the night off. Thirty oysters and a couple of cheap lagers later, I left and made a mental note of where the restaurant was located, hoping to come back. Continue reading