Beijing, Family Style

Todd Coleman

When you're far away from home, it's good to make new friends—especially if they're terrific cooks. A couple of nights ago I was proverbially cold, tired, and hungry while wandering through a low-slung hutong neighborhood in Beijing's Dongcheng district with my friend Lillian Chou. Laden with bags, we stopped in front of a shadow box of a restaurant and peered inside. Huddled around a table were five people playing mah-jongg. We tried the door; it wouldn't budge. Suddenly, they looked up. Once we came into focus, they were all smiles. The next thing I knew, I was standing in their tiny, makeshift kitchen—to enter, I'd had to duck through a four-foot doorway—as they fired dish after dish in a huge cast-iron wok, amid a welter of smoke, fire, and steam, to satisfy our hunger. The chef's name is Zhang Xu Zhen and he told us he came from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. His father is a cook and his father's father had been, too. Carrying on the tradition, he is a master at preparing such classic Sichuan dishes as chongqing lazhiji (pictured, top), flash-fried chunks of bone-in chicken covered with a glistening pile of dried red chiles; tu du niu rou (pictured, at left), a deeply flavored, ginger-laced beef and fried potato stew; and mapo doufu (pictured, bottom), a spicy-savory-sweet stir-fry of ground pork, tofu, and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. In fact, the entire restaurant is a family affair, with brother Zhang Guo Yang delivering the phone orders; brother Zhang Shu Zhen helping out in the kitchen; Zhou Xiao Ming, their mother, standing guard at the cash register; eldest brother Zhang Xu manning the wok; and sister Zhang Shu Zhen waiting on tables. The food was vibrant and utterly delicious. "We are countryside fresh," said Zhang Xu, barely visible in a waft of wok smoke as I peppered him with questions about his cooking. He then enumerated the six other components of his cuisine, practically shouting them as he counted them off on his fingers: "Sour, sweet, salty, spicy, fragrant, and numbing!" The name of this magical restaurant? Destiny Destiny Fresh, or Yuan Yuan Xiang. I see it in your future.

Yuan Yuan Xiang, 7 Shi Qie Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China; 86/136-7103-2876