A tried and true stalwart, Zhang Mama has long been one of our favourite Sichuan restaurants in Beijing – maybe even just one of our favourite restaurants full stop – so the closure of its shoebox-sized outlet at Fensiting Hutong was a huge loss for our longing, grumbling stomachs. Fortunately, the team from that branch have bounced back and re-emerged at this relatively cavernous new spot just north of the Guloudajie subway stop.
Admittedly, it was never to everyone's taste, but the romance in the chaos of its old joint (the queuing, table-sharing, shouting staff and scribbled orders) has largely made way at this new feasting arena, complete with a mammoth dining hall, private rooms, an in-house toilet, orders made via QR code and a generally more sterile environment. Human interaction has been slashed, and service remains a little aloof – not that it was ever expected to be silver-grade – though the efficiency with which the food hits the table means any grievance largely fades into irrelevance.
And on that table, it looks to have been a seamless transition. Now served from a kitchen that is at least six or seven times the size of its predecessor, the food still hits the fantastic heights of yore – they must have brought the unwashed woks with years of flavour locked in – and, unlike the menu at the ritzier Sanlitun outlet
, stays firm at the same exceptional price point.
The huiguo rou (28RMB), twice-cooked pork, still steals the show, its delightful mix of fatty pork, scallions and fried crisp, baocui, making it the star centrepiece. Elsewhere, the electric kung pao chicken (18RMB), yuxiang eggplant (15RMB) and spicy pork dumplings (10RMB) remain highlights, as does the mala lotus root (15RMB), smothered in spicy oil, while at just 10RMB, their delightfully simple dandan noodles – with minced pork, chilli oil and peanuts – must go down as one of the best value noodles in town. And when lips inevitably vibrate, it simply has to be the trusted antidote of a peanut milk (4RMB) to wash it all down.
In the new post-hutong era we’re edging towards, it’s easy to get lost in a sort of selfish nostalgia for the bygone Zhang Mama. But truthfully, we shouldn’t begrudge seeing a thriving neighbourhood diner all grown up in more sizeable – and, quite importantly, stable – surroundings. We’re just thankful to see it back. In the words of the quite aptly named Spice Girls: Mama, we love you.
Dinner for two 80RMB
By Patrick Moore