You're young and adventurous. You have a master's degree in anthropology. You're not Asian but you lived a while in Beijing. And you recently recommended I eat at Bei Jing Kabobs.
Why did you do that? You've ruined my rep and humiliated me. You made me eat something I never in a million years would have thought to eat. Let me start at the beginning.
Every Friday for two years, I've taken five friends to restaurants with the hope of broadening their tastes beyond LongHorn and Moe's. Some of these are new, mainstream restaurants and some are ethnic. As I've explained before, no matter the type of Asian food, they tend to pore through the menu looking for fried rice and egg rolls.
When you suggested Bei Jing — formerly called Te Wei — it sounded safe. I even researched online commentary and found it mostly positive. Our group had been to Chef Liu's and my friends loved the dumplings. And who could dislike grilled kabobs? So, off we went to the blindingly bright little restaurant in a shopping center that looks like every new shopping center on Buford Highway.
As soon as we sat down at the long table in the middle of the room, the boys began complaining about the menu's weird translations. I was as confused and looked the room over. We were the only non-Asians there. So I invaded a table of young women: "Do y'all speak English pretty good?"
They laughed. They were a group of Georgia Tech engineering students from Beijing who were finishing up their meal. They explained that the menu is mainly street food from northern China. The big attraction, the grilled kabobs (mainly $1 each), are listed under a section on the first page called "Charcoal Bake String Class." There's another section called "Hot and Spicy String Class." The latter are kabobs (60 cents each) that are served partially submerged in a spicy broth. "String" = "skewer."
The second page of the menu includes miscellaneous dishes like dumplings, steamed buns, noodles, hot pots, and cold salads. You use a copy of the menu to check off what you want. They reviewed the menu with us and made a few suggestions. One of the women asked, "Why are you here?"
Bobby instantly barked, "Because Cliffy made us come here." Bobby has traveled throughout China and said, "You wouldn't believe the stuff they eat there."
Readers might recall that earlier this year, David Sedaris, the popular satirist, wrote an essay for the Guardian on the food he encountered during a book tour of China. It was unflattering to say the least, painting a picture of people devouring weird food amid grotesquely unsanitary conditions. It enraged many readers, who labeled him something like a culinary philistine who didn't understand that the Chinese developed a cuisine that was a reflection of their longtime poverty. But friends from China and those who had visited, including you, Stephen, called the essay "spot on."
Bobby and Ryan, who usually make slightly adventurous but cautious choices, immediately began ordering dumplings, while Jay and Frank began a search for won ton soup. Michael, who is legally blind, complained about the smells.
"Come on, guys," I groused, "this is a chance to try some really unusual dishes. Let's branch out."
"OK," Bobby said, "you order the ox penis."
I balked. Lamb testicles and kidneys dotted the menu, along with "bamboo rot" and "rot bamboo mixed decay."
"No," I said. "I'm not ordering the sheep testicles."
"Oh my God!" Bobby shouted. "We found something Cliffy won't eat. This is a first in two years!"
I felt annoyed. Fine, I'll order a plate of the "spicy slice pig ears," along with some kabobs like fish tofu, sausage, and a steam bun filled with "lamb celery." I'd get some more kabobs served with a bowl of spicy-hot broth. Those included bean skin, wood-ear mushrooms, asparagus, chrysanthemum leaves, and crab.
Frank and Jay indeed found won ton soup, which arrived in gigantic bowls. Both declared it delicious. Ryan and Bobby passed around their dumplings and fat steamed buns filled with seasoned pork. They were juicy and slightly spicy. Bobby and I coated ours with hot chili oil.
Then my plate of pig ears was put before me. I used to eat fried pork ear sandwiches now and then, but this was simply strips of the ears with the texture of extra-chewy tendon. I found nothing spicy about them. I held the dish up. "Who wants to try these?" I asked, knowing full well I might as well be kicking them in the stomach.
I set the plate back down. "I hate these," I thought to myself.
Then my lamb-celery bun arrived. I bit into the fluffy, slightly chewy bun to savor its ground filling. My jaw froze. Literally. But I forced myself to swallow. Never in my life have I tasted anything so awful. It tasted rancid. "This is the worst thing I've ever tasted," I said. I urged Frank, who was sitting across from me, to try it. He too froze in horror and spit out the bite he'd taken.
"Another first!" Bobby declared. Frank is infamous for finishing off everyone's leftovers. "It's the first time he's not doing that."
My skewers of fish tofu and sausage arrived. The tofu was sublime, really. It was slightly sweet, with tofu's springy texture. A slight taste of fish emerged at the end of each bite. Then I took a bite of my sausage kabob. "Good Lord," I said, "this tastes like Vienna sausage. It's a cheap hot dog." It was decoratively pared to produce a charred swirl. I couldn't eat it.
Michael declared his hot pot of Sichuan beef inedible. He passed over a sample, mainly of the beef. I put it in my mouth and nearly gagged. The meat was literally slimy. I thought of slugs. Another dish I couldn't eat.
So it went. It was clear the group took great pleasure in seeing me leave most of my food on the table. That's why I say you ruined my rep, Stephen. Now, I'm just another culinary scaredy cat.
A day later, hating myself, I decided I would return alone. I was going to order the ox penis, damn it. I had to do it. I also ordered everyone's tasty favorite here, lamb kabobs coated in cumin with some slightly hot chili concoction. I got two but three arrived.
"I got three," I said to the owner.
"Ox penis," he said.
That was an ox penis? It was about the size of a hot dog. How in hell does an ox inseminate another ox with that? I bit into it. It was seasoned like the lamb, mainly meaty with something like a springy tube in the center. I guessed that was the urethra — how utterly mundane.
And so, Stephen, because of you I had to eat a tiny ox dick, charred on a stick, to redeem myself. When I next see you, I'm taking you there to cram lamb balls down your piehole. Actually, I'm really craving those now.
Were there sliders?
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