Street food in Beijing is abundant, cheap, and hidden in every corner of old hutongs (alleys formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences). Experience the vivid food culture of this country by ambling down the streets and sampling local snacks along the way. There are may not be any seats but any foodie will be happy to stand to the side or squat by the edge of the sidewalk while savouring their tasty, hot treats.
The Weird And Wacky At Wangfujing
Active since the Ming dynasty, the Wangfujing area is one of the most famous shopping streets and an indisputably hot retail spot for tourists, with luxury malls such as Oriental Plaza and Beijing Department Store. Spanning slightly over 2,000 sq m and with filled with vendors hawking over 500 kinds of street snacks including Chinese regional bites, the Wangfujing alleys comes to life at night. While it is too crowded for the locals, its enduring popularity with the tourists means that this snack street will probably stick around for a while.
Most commonly found here are different types of bizarre chuan’r (串儿): skewered bits of seahorse, deep-fried starfish, sea cucumber, water beetles, silkworm cocoons, centipede, scorpions, tripe, cicadas, locusts, crickets, honeybee cocoons, and longhorn beetles—a veritable feast for The Addam’s Family perhaps. A must-try is bing tang hu lu (冰糖葫芦) where hawthorn fruit are threaded onto a stick and dipped in hot syrup for a shiny, sugary shell.
You might get a whiff of stinky tofu from a mile away. While it smells like a cross between blue cheese and feet that has not seen a good wash for several days, it’s a popular snack – albeit one that requires some getting used to. Deep-fried tofu with a golden and crisp exterior and custard-soft insides, are served in a brine made from fermented milk. After the first bite, you will find that it’s not that strong as it smells. For the less adventurous, there are also hearty bing (pies) packed with veggies, and zha jiang mian (炸酱面, minced pork noodles, RMB 5) at 32 Wangfujing Xijie, to fill you up. The traditional noodles offer a combination of carbs with fatty pork, sweet bean paste, and shredded vegetables like cucumber, radish and bean sprouts.
Wangfujing Snack Street: Daily 10am-10pm. Wangfujing Dajie, Dongcheng District (东城区王府井大街王府井小吃街)
Traditional Hutongs At Beixinqiao
Inside the second ring road, the Dongsi/Beixinqiao area is vivid with old maze-like hutongs brimming with local culture, residents, and various eats. As one of the few remaining traditional hutongs, this cluster is where western food stalls meets local traditional eateries harmoniously and the streets are interspersed with modern eats amidst local hole-in-the-walls: a donkey burger place might be located next to a local baozi (包子, buns) shop, a brewpub might sit opposite to a chicken wings chuan’r stall. Nothing beats the experience of biting into a baozi while strolling down a hundred-year-old hutong, or sipping your craft cocktail and chatting to the grandma who still lives next door to the bar—it can’t get any more local than this.
Interesting international snacks are aplenty along Beixinqiao. Think Taiwanese gua bao (pork belly buns) at Antlers (34 Fangjia Hutong), Israeli falafel at Moximoxi (22 Beixin Santiao), and a greasy Manhattan Monster Burger at Katchup (53 Jiaodaokou Nandajie). But for more traditional nosh, hit Wang Pangzi for lü rou huo shao, (驴肉火烧, donkey burgers, RMB 10-11) where a mix of lean and fatty donkey meat is clasped between a rectangular Hejian-style bun and a peppery donkey soup. The Hebei restaurant also offers soy bean milk, jianbing, baozi, chuan’r and hotpot.
Wang Pangzi :Daily 9.30am-10pm. 92 Dongsi Beidajie, Dongcheng District (王胖子驴肉火烧：东城区东四北大街92号)
Another long established brand is the time-honoured Baikui Laohao, a Hui-style Muslim restaurant founded in 1780. Besides specialty grilled beef and mutton, the place offers a wide range of breakfast and sweet snacks such as zhagezhi (炸咯吱, deep-fried pastry), jiao quan (焦圈,deep-fried dough rings), ai wo wo (艾窝窝, glutinous rice balls with red bean fillings), rolling donkeys (驴打滚, glutinous rice rolls covered with sweet soybean flour), wandou huang (豌豆黄, yellow squares of pea cake). On most mornings, you can also see locals in pajamas lining up for freshly made local Beijing breakfast.
Baikui Laohao: Daily 6am-8pm. 158 Jiaodaokou Nandajie, Dongcheng District (白魁老号：东城区交道口南大街158号)
Sanlitun: An Evolving Urban Area
One of Beijing’s liveliest neighbourhoods, Sanlitun is the centre of bar culture, shopping, food, fashion and arts, with many a famous bar street that became synonymous to the city’s nightlife. Unfortunately, the ‘dirty bar street’ alongside Tongli Mansion complex and 3.3 Mall have been cleaned-up in recent years and many locals have lamented that it just doesn’t have the bustling village vibe of the yesteryears. Still, some vendors have survived. You can get in the queue and try the grilled pig’s trotters at Jing Shao (京勺); the niurou shaobing (牛肉 燒餅, beef burger, RMB 8) next door, which are pushed out by the hundreds daily, are also a must-try. If you are lucky, you might be able to find chao leng mian (烤冷面, grilled cold noodles, RMB 5) from a cart for midnight munchies; the dish consists of a sheet of dough with texture similar to Korean cold noodles (naengmyeon) which is filled with egg and fried on a hot skillet then served with served with scallions, chopped onions, cilantro, hoisin sauce and hot chilli sauce.
Most of the street vendors have moved into nearby malls. In Shimao Shopping Mall, there’s Susongfu, a small stall tucked away in the basement, selling shengjian bao (生煎包, pan-fried buns, RMB 10). Similar to xiao long bao (小笼包, soup dumplings), these bready and delicious crisp sacks are filled with juicy minced pork meat and hot soup. You should also try the duck blood and vermicelli soup.
Susongfu: Daily 10am-9pm. B1, Shimao Shopping Mall, 13 Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang District (苏松府生煎：朝阳区工体北路13号世贸工三B1)
Over at the second floor of Shimao Department Mall is the 31-year-old Baoduhuang stall selling traditional tripe. The stall first opened at Dongzhimenwai but relocated here a couple of months ago. There are 11 different options of beef or mutton stomach and a popular order is the boiled tripe which goes well with their special sauce of sesame paste, soy sauce, shallots, and cilantro. Don’t miss the fried mung bean pulp made by fermenting the soy beans that are left over from making tofu, with added herbs, peas, and lamb oil that gives the dish an extraordinarily deep lamb flavour.
Baoduhuang:Daily 11am-2.30pm, 5pm-9.30pm. 201, 2/F, Bldg 1, Shimao Department Mall, Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang District (爆肚皇：朝阳区工体北路世茂工三商场1号楼2层201室)
Our favorite Shaanxi-style noodle bar Ling’erjiu Noodles offers hearty youpo noodles(油泼面, RMB 25) which literally means hot oil wheat noodles served al dente in a huge bowl and topped with minced pork, bean sprouts, potatoes, carrots, vegetables, and a tangy dressing of vinegar and chilli oil.
Ling’erjiu Noodles:Daily 11am-9pm. Xingfucun Zhonglu, 60m east of the traffic lights by the Holiday Inn Hotel, Chunxiu Lu, Chaoyang District 朝阳区幸福村中路智选假日酒店红路灯往东60米路南
The emergence of The Crib, a food & lifestyle venue, much like the the COMMONS in Bangkok and Eataly in Turin, is perhaps an evolution of Beijing’s street food culture. The one-stop food haven offers over 30 vendors and stalls with international, non-traditional and Chinese restaurants, bars and more. Get your ice dripped coffee fix at Stove Fire Café, hit Nooxo for healthy bowls or have your fill of Inner-Mongolian lamb chuan’r at Mengba Warriors. Yu Bar on the second floor, offers eight beers on tap, including Mandarin Wheat and Flying Fist from local brewery Jing-A.
The Crib: Daily 10am-late. The Crib, 1 Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang District (育膳房：朝阳区工体北路1号)
A version of this story appeared on SALT magazine’s August/September 2017 print issue.