The Wudaoying hutong is a study in evolution. As it strives to cosmically reassemble itself into a chic, boutique-strewn den of the hip and the fashionable, so arrive the Western-style restaurants. Like the first trilobites to scuttle onto land and serve burritos, they line the street in expectancy at the sight of shoppers hemorrhaging cash. It’s Darwinian dining in motion and the latest example comes in the shape of Tex-Mex eatery Sand Pebbles Lounge (now Pebbles Courtyard).
Sand Pebbles's whitewash exterior attempts a cantina flavour that extends inside only to the pottery skull at the entrance. A tight, spiral staircase winds up from the snug bar, past shelves packed with old Time magazines and bizarre paintings of ‘big cats’ to the sofa-packed restaurant upstairs. Further exploration leads to a roof terrace, but that’s just not a November option. Inside Sand Pebbles is cosy. A TV pumps out non-stop sport as lions and jaguars peer hungrily down at you from the walls. It’s the sort of place that wins you over by its sheer enthusiasm.
The menus are even glued into old paperback books. The choice on them errs strongly on the side of comfort. Sand Pebbles wants to please and the pick of fajitas, quesadillas and tequilas swiftly gives way to fish and chips, South African boerewors sausage (68RMB), a large selection of pastas (including one with meatballs that’s inexplicably named after 2008 Will Smith film Hancock!) and a few already defunct options. It’s not long before a plate of tortilla chips and dips arrive (18RMB). Sadly, the serving of small, from-a-bag discs surrounded by pots of flavourless guacamole (5RMB) and salsa that tastes like it’s from a jar disappoints and is a complete waste as everything seems to get a perfunctory handful of chips.
Meanwhile the ‘bacon bits and mayonnaise-heavy’ Caesar salad (35RMB) is a salad that no one ever seems to get right. When the fajitas do arrive, you begin to realise what really lets Sand Pebbles down: it’s so eager to make you comfortable, it forgets the flavour. Sand Pebbles's house fajita (68RMB) for two is lacking in both taste and spice; it’s a griddle of limp beef and onions that suffers from a lack of fire, in every sense, with just a side cut of avocado (6RMB) to hide its guilt. Likewise, the quesadilla (45RMB) is simply a mass of greasy industrial cheese and chicken with sour cream and more bad salsa. The honey aloe tea (16RMB) is cavity-sweet and undrinkable and it is only the excellent milkshakes (22RMB) that don’t let us down.
Where Sand Pebbles Lounge should provide big, crowd-pleasing flavours, it sadly fails to deliver. This is Tex-Mex food, after all – it’s meant to slap you in the face with a wet poncho and have you reach for the tequila, which it offers in many varieties. What you have here is a cosy café space and a good place to relax. It’s comfortable and the staff are both quick and eager. But, for it not to become a casualty of evolution, it needs to find that missing link: a bit of authenticity. Gareth Clark