Tuesday, October 6, 2009

BEIJING: Noodle Alley

The noodle rainbow.

Food TV has been a successful fad for a number of years now, yet it still feels very much in its infancy based on the amount of overlap and redundancies across the spectrum of shows. They all seem to be going to the same places and saying the same shit over and over again. The audience is still a big unknown, apparently, because it’s obvious they’re not sure what skill level the viewers are yet. There’s an inordinate amount of time wasted, for instance, on some of the simplest kitchen tasks and most obvious food related information. I have yet to make the list that I’ve been wanting to for all of these “islands of knowledge,” but an example that would be near the top of the list would be The Avocado. Any time anyone on any show is making a recipe that calls for an avocado, they all have to pause and talk to me like I’m a child and reveal the secret to disassembling the fruit. “OH! So THAT’S how you get that pesky pit out?”

Food TV gold: a peasant sleeping in a rickshaw in an alley strewn with trash!

Another one of my favorite recurring themes in food television is the, “eat where the locals eat/street food is the best” mantra which is always delivered in this nauseatingly condescending tone that has a peculiar way of destroying the intended message. “Look at how cool I am slummin’ it with the locals!”

He'll make a delightful meal someday, but when we were there he was the cutest resident of Noodle Alley. (Oh, Gary wanted to say something, "asssssqXXXXXXXXXXXXXXD." Not sure what that is, "Ass Quixote?" He's a strange cat.)

Despite the influence of nearly every TV food celebrity’s insistence on seeking out “bizarre foods,” Tania and I have always kind of been like that anyway. We don’t like the tourist shit, and we tend to avoid anything “popular.” When we were in Beijing, for instance, we avoided any kind of tour or group activity, preferring to explore on our own. I think the only time we participated in a tour was to get to the Forbidden City. We had planned on visiting it on our own, but when we found out we could get a free ride there plus admission, we decided to plug our noses and board the tour bus. As soon as we were in, ZOOM! We ditched the group. I hate groups. I don’t even like going out to eat with more than four or five people. Aside from the Forbidden City visit, we had no itinerary in China and our only agenda was to get lost. In so doing, we found this fucked up market and street food alley less than a mile from our hotel. It was food TV heaven.

We probably should have chosen this noodle guy because he's clean, and handsome, and, most importantly, not drunk.

The market is an entire post in itself, but across the street from it was this weird food alley. And then off the food alley was another smaller alley which we named, “Noodle Alley.” And I don’t doubt that’s what the Chinese call it as well. One side is a cinder block wall lined with tables and other junk. The other side is a row of stalls and small shop fronts that all seemed to be selling the same thing: noodles. Each one had a cook in front throwing dough and making noodles, all with great fanfare. The cook would take a ball of dough, throw it around in the air, beat it on the bench, yell at us through the rainbows of flour, and next thing you’d know, he’d have a beautiful pile of silky noodles on the table in front of them.

Instead, we chose this guy, Ole Wi Can Chugalot.

We finally settled on the shop that seemed to have the craziest noodle technician out front. We couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but he just seemed funnier than any of the others. Turns out he was drunk. After we sat down to eat, we noticed that he was sucking on a 40 ouncer of Chinese beer that he had hidden beneath his noodle bench. I liked him even more. We nodded, Yes, we would like some noodles. They ushered us into dingy little room where we took a seat at a tiny table with mismatching chairs. We pointed at a beer on another table and raised two fingers, “Two?”

Here's the youngest Chugalot. He gave us cigarettes when we were done eating.

After he made the dough make shapes in the air, he’d toss together a pile of noodles and hand them off to, presumably, another family member, who would then throw the noodles into what was essentially a garbage can with boiling liquid in it. After just a couple minutes, noodles and broth were tossed into a bowl, garnished with pork flakes (I think?) and cilantro, and served with a beer and chili sauce.

Tania slurping on a bowl of awesome.

If I was a douchey food writer, I’d get all romantic about how exquisite a simple bowl of noodles served in a back alley in the middle of Beijing was, but I won’t. Nor will I reserve an effluent description of the dish for any upcoming interviews I may be doing where I might possibly be asked something like, “What was the best meal you ever had while traveling?” “Well, there was this one time when I was traveling through China…” Suffice it to say that it was a really good bowl of noodles. And while I’ve grown mind numbingly tired of hearing the traveling TV food personalities praising peasant food, I have to admit that sometimes they’re sort of right. Especially if a noodle show is involved.

Frankly, you don't have much choice in China but to eat what the locals eat because even the American fast food imports are completely unrecognizable. Not sure what this offering from KFC is, but I'm pretty sure the stateside franchise doesn't offer a Poop Taco Falafel?


Miles said...

Funny you mention the Poop Taco Falafel. I think I had one of those in France. In Paris, actually. I'm Jewish, if you can believe it. I don't look classically Semetic, like Dimitry (he's got Jew written all over him) but I've been to Israel a few times and I know my way around a falafel stand so when they're available out and about on my travels I try to partake of them. Now, imagine Paris is the solar system with the sun being the most tourist-friendly center of things. Like where the Louvre is and shit. We had somehow ventured out into the Pluto orbit to someplace where the hotels were cheaper. And it was sketchy as hell. You remember they had those riots a few years back? Repressed Muslim immigrants burned a bunch of cars out there. This was before all that, but you could already feel the hate. Probably because I am American, but maybe I was giving off the Jew vibe as well I was served some kind poop taco falafel. I tried to order a shwarma but what I got was all burnt looking and dirty with sketchy yogurt sauce. I ate most of it on the train because it was late at night and nothing else was open and I was starving. Lesson learned however; eating like the locals is fine if the locals don't despise your very presence. If you're getting the stink-eye, best to move along.

Unknown said...

What's up Dave? Huge fan of your writing. I do need a favor though. Can you let me know the rules of the Gentlemen's Drinking League? I'm trying to setup something similar with a few friends. Thanks in advance.

Ajumma said...

There are no noodles quite like Chinese alley noodles.