In Beijing, some of the best restaurants are run by bureaucrats.
Through a security checkpoint in the city’s Xicheng district, past a vast, 425-room hotel, and up a flight of stairs bedecked with flowers, is the Xinjiang Islam Restaurant.
On a Wednesday lunchtime earlier this year, the cafeteria-style eatery was packed with people, clustered around small tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths and plates and plates of food giving off the strong smell of cumin and other spices.
The restaurant serves food from Xinjiang, a region in the far west of China. It’s home to multiple ethnic groups and cultures and has at times in its history been independent from Beijing rule.
Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking people who are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, can be found in many major Chinese cities, cooking heavily spiced beef and lamb over charcoal braziers, serving them with crispy nan and sauteed vegetables.
All of that was on offer at Xinjiang Islam Restaurant, cooked to perfection and paired with tea and a chilled, intensely flavored blueberry drink served in Snapple-like screw-top bottles.
But what really sets the place apart from its fellows is the proprietors: the restaurant is run by the Xinjiang provincial government, one of dozens of similar eateries originally set up to serve government officials food from home that are now open to the public.
“All kinds of people come to dine here, locals, Uyghur people and VIPs,” said Feng Ziyi, the restaurant’s floor manager, adding that Pakistan’s president visited during a recent economic summit.
Xinjiang Islam Restaurant
Xinjiang Provincial Government Office, 7 Sanlihe Lu, Xicheng District
The trend started with Chuan Ban, a traditional courtyard-style restaurant tucked down a side street near the Jianguomen diplomatic area, east of the Forbidden City.
“We are the pioneer among provincial restaurants,” said Gao Kai, a manager at the restaurant, which started as a lodging house for officials visiting the capital from Sichuan, a province in southwestern China famed for its spicy chilli and numbing-pepper-infused cuisine.
Today, the restaurant is an “independent registered company,” Gao said, though it still entertains guests or officials from the Sichuan government and cooks for them.
Chuan Ban is popular with ordinary Sichuanese as well, many of whom visit for a taste of home, though they increasingly have to compete for tables with tourists as the restaurant’s profile has grown, featured on many best of lists.
“The Jianguomen area is full of embassies, those foreigners come here a lot too,” Gao said. “They have many interesting practices, like never ordering cold plates or internal organs, and always ask for ‘Kung Pao chicken’ or ‘spicy Sichuan chicken’.”
Gao waxed lyrical about the complexity and variety within Sichuan cuisine, bemoaning a focus both inside of China and without on spiciness.
“Sichuan food is not limited to pungent and spicy flavors, and authentic Sichuan food isn’t too spicy,” he said.
The restaurant’s shui zhu yu, boiled fish enveloped in chillies and peppers – a dish that’s delicate and tender, with only a background of spicy-numbness – proves his point.
5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie, Dongcheng District
Provincial government restaurants have their roots in the danwei, or work unit, system, whereby state-run businesses provided everything for their employees, from food, to housing, education and healthcare.
“They were originally catering primarily to the staff and visitors of provincial government offices,” said Garth Wilson a Beijing-based food writer and guide with UnTour. “While many (have remained) in their original form, some have expanded their restaurant and hotel offerings.”
The best of the provincial restaurants act like embassies for their particular cuisine, but the pressure of competing with privately run restaurants can result in a standardization of menus to please all comers, said Margaux Schreurs, a Dutch expat and food writer who has visited almost every provincial government restaurant in the city.
“Many of them offer ‘Chinese’ food … rather than their province’s specific food,” she said. Such food includes national favorites like twice-cooked pork, and the dreaded Kung Pao chicken.
Two of the most stand out restaurants – the Xinjiang and Sichuan offerings – serve cuisines widely represented in the capital and other cities around the country. Harder to find provincial flavors can, unfortunately, be less-than-capably represented by their official restaurants, according to Schreurs.
“You might expect them to be the pinnacle of each province’s cuisine, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case,” she said.
Fortunately however, this decidedly was the case with regard to Gansu, one of China’s poorest provinces, which snakes between Mongolia and the Tibetan plateau in the country’s northwest.
A small, eight-table restaurant on the third floor of a government-run hotel, Feitian Dasha served delicious moist and crispy lamb belly, braised yak chops, chunky leek pies, and the hand-pulled Lanzhou noodles which are the province’s most famous export and a lunchtime staple of many office workers across China.
While the Gansu beer wasn’t anything to write home about, the rest of the meal was enough to send one looking up flights to Lanzhou, an instinct helped by the scenic, black-and-white photos of Gansu along the restaurant’s walls.
3/F, Feitian Mansion, 5 Guangqumenwai Nanjie, Chongwen District