If I said what I wanted to say, namely that what I ate at Beijing Bao didn’t taste like Chinese food, then you’d probably take me for an idiot. You’d say China is big, China is far away, and as the only Chinese food you’ve probably eaten was eaten in Chinese restaurants, the restaurants not being in China, then you don’t know what Chinese food tastes like.
That would be fair enough.
So perhaps it would be better for me to say that the food at Beijing Bao is not what one would expect to eat at a Chinese restaurant. I mean, not unless you expect cumin in your food and thickets of fresh coriander strewn on top. Not unless it’s no big deal to you that the beef you just put in your mouth has melted before you had time to close it, let alone chew; and not unless you’re the kind of person that would find someone’s asking you to pass the soy sauce some sort of ironic joke. Everyone knows you don’t get soy sauce when you’re eating Beijing Bao’s Chinese.
And you don’t; at least, it doesn’t come standard at the table. Standard there is a small pot of vinegar, Korean style, and a sauce with a chilli-kick. Standard there are green beans barely cooked and heaped in fried, minced pork that will make you think twice about the virtues of eating pop corn because heck, popcorn is greasier than this and this is much more satisfying anyway. Those sauces (you know the ones) that render every dish essentially the same but for their different hues of red? That goopy, black, they-call-it-fish-sauce, I-call-it-MSG stuff that, no matter how hard you try not to, reminds you of the effects of an oil spill? Instead of that stuff, you get vegetables that are still identifiable as, and have the original texture of, vegetables; and if you order right they’ll come with nothing more than chunks of fried garlic that you’ll be able to chopstick-out blindfolded for their size.
No, this kitchen is not afraid of garlic and nor should you be. Not even when you order the beef ribs in garlic which, when we did, turned out to be (or at least seemed to be) pork ribs in a dry-as-dust pancake-batter crust that had been infused with garlic. ‘Dry as dust’ in the case of batter is a compliment, unless you like the not-enough-napkins greasy kind, in which case this is not your sort of Chinese. These were a little too boney but until proven otherwise, I like to think that had they actually battered us up the beef ribs we’d ordered, this wouldn’t have been the case.
You’ll probably want to order second plate of the Chinese cabbage with pork (kimchi with really tasty, not at all dry pork), but don’t let this put you off ordering another, different cabbage dish. The Chinese cabbage with soy and vinegar was bright and tangy and imparted a joy akin to that you might feel in taking a bite of a well-placed pickle in your sandwich for balance, i.e.: much joy. Order it. Order it and put a little on your plate with a little of everything else (the dishes are large and to be shared), but especially the melt in your mouth beef with cumin (I’m still surprised), shredded onion, coriander and… garlic. With the beef shaven, succulent but dry and spiced with cumin, I suppose this is what Greek gyros would taste like if it were excellent. And this was excellent.
When the ‘Beijing pizza’ arrives (for the restaurant operates strict serve-yourself drinks and it-comes-when-it-comes policies), essentially a larger, absolutely not greasy, dumpling rolled over well-spiced minced lamb and braised leeks, it’s likely you’ll also want to comment on how Middle Eastern the tastes are. Ditto with the steamed eggs – theirs is the same creamy, nuttiness that you’ll find in the 10-hour boiled eggs that perch atop hummus bowls in Israel. From these last two dishes and the beef, it would seem that the two kitchens share similar recipes for soul food.
And it’s the food that carries the place. With no real decor to speak of, a TV screen in the back loudly slide-showing the dishes, no alcohol licence and staff that aren’t really interested in talking to you, Beijing Bao is the type of place you probably only dared to enter because of the number of Chinese sitting inside, or because a local friend you trust enough to take you to a Chinese restaurant in Rotterdam even though you don’t like ‘Chinese’ and you have to travel from Amsterdam, takes you. However you got there, go there. After dinner you’ll probably want to go again for breakfast.