SMART MOUTH

Still Hungry? The Dish on Six Beijing Restaurants

Bellagio serves Taiwanese specialties (and outlandish desserts) to cool crowds.
Bellagio serves Taiwanese specialties (and outlandish desserts) to cool crowds. (Anne McDonough)

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Sunday, April 30, 2006

I left for China a runner. I returned a Teletubby.

Holding tightly to the philosophy that the truest way to see a place is to eat your way through it, I packed on 25 pounds as an undergrad abroad in 1999. And while that initial feat remains unmatched, each of three extended trips to China over the following six years, including a visit last fall, translated to at least eight pounds on the scale. Chinese food in China is good, to put it mildly.

That's perhaps not the experience of folks on packaged tours, where meals often consist of banquet food poorly adjusted for Western tastes. But even the most programmed tour gives its participants an afternoon or evening to walk around and explore night markets -- which offer tofu-on-a-stick and slightly sweetened popcorn -- and discover no-name storefronts serving up bowls of lamian, freshly pulled noodles swimming in broth. I have never had anything less than a stellar meal at these family-run joints, all for usually less than $3 a person. With beer.

For those don't speak Chinese or enjoy pantomiming -- and who'd like a restaurant with a clean floor -- here are six Beijing haunts offering English menus that showcase a variety of Chinese food. The city is increasingly fashionable these days, but I've found that backpackers and one-outfit travelers are welcome at even the fanciest restaurants. Also, menus and prices tend to stay the same for both lunch and dinner.

If cabbing it, have your concierge write down the name and address of the restaurant in Chinese on the hotel's card and give it to your driver.

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Order like a glutton, pay like a pauper at the magnificent Yu Xin, where a long room filled with booths, private nooks and a gazebo-like table (complete with faux foliage) provides the backdrop for some of the city's most authentic Sichuan cuisine. As is standard in China, dishes arrive in a constant stream, served as soon as they are prepared. We mixed small cold dishes, such as sesame and dried bean curd (75 cents) and mashed garlic and cucumber (25 cents), with generous portions of eggplant in chili sauce ($2), roll of yolk and duck meat ($2.25), toffee sweet potatoes ($3.10) and mantou , fried buns served with condensed milk ($2). The bullfrog cooked with pao peppers ($7.20) is what keeps folks coming back.

$12 for two, including beer. Yu Xin (011-86-10-6415-8168) is at 5A Xingfu Yicun Xili, Chaoyang District. Nearest metro: Dongsishitiao.

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Din Tai Fung, an offshoot of the slick Taiwan enterprise, offers signature dumplings that should by all appearances spew hot liquid when picked up by chopsticks. But somehow the thin-skinned, pork-filled xiaolongbao ($4.40 for 10) explode only after entering your mouth. Other menu standouts include vegetable dumplings ($3.70 for 10), sauteed green vegetables ($3.10), fried rice with egg ($2.40) and noodles with sesame sauce ($2.40). Finish with the delectable steamed mashed red bean buns ($3.40 for 10). And if you run into a wait at this perennially popular place, there's entertainment: The glassed-in kitchen offers a look at the nimble-fingered chefs wrapping dumplings.

$15 for two, including beer. Din Tai Fung (011-86-10-6462-4502) is at 22 Hujiayuan, Dongcheng District. Nearest metro: Dongzhimen.

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