One of my contractors did some extra work for me. As thanks, I took him out to dinner. Naturally, I took him to a place that serves only Western food, has an English menu, and there isn’t a single chopstick in the place. It’s nice to reverse the equation once in awhile and land on my home turf. He adapted with good humor, although he really hadn’t figured out a fork by the end of the evening and kept trying to use the knife to pick things up onto it.

Anyway, on the way back to the subway, we went through a street food market. This is popular with the Wudakhou student crowd, and as we passed a 名词 (kebab) place, I was struck by the number of varieties. Most places only have two, beef or mutton, but this place had a list of at least a dozen different items.

I asked my contractor what the most expensive item on the menu was, because at 8 kuai, it was unusually expensive. He looked embarrassed and broke into a giggle and didn’t want to tell me.  Eventually I pried it out of him.


As in meat balls. As in ram testicles.

Oh well. At least I know where to find grilled ram testicles in Beijing.

After a welcome reprieve from high temperatures, it’s really hot again here in Beijing. One of the most popular ways to beat the heat is ice cream, and I picked up a quart of Dreyer’s Grand Cookies ‘n Cream. It was on sale for about $6 at the BHG Supermarket, and was right next to my $7 pack of frozen waffles. Pure decadence.

The only way to live in Beijing without spending a fortune is to go local, eating Chinese food and taking buses and subways instead of taxis. I’m better at saving on transportation than food; when you can’t read the menus and the dishes are weird and alien, it’s just easier to eat Western. Having spent nearly $40 on a single bag of groceries, I wasn’t in any mood to spend more. I’ve been feeling more adventurous lately and decided to try riding the bus home, as I successfully did from the airport yesterday (saving about $4 in the process).

Bus stops list the route of every bus, and buses stop only at fixed locations. Only one problem: it’s all in Chinese. Still, I thought I recognized the characters for Dongzhimen, which is near my apartment, so I hopped on the bus. Buses aren’t air conditioned, and the bus slowly made its way in the right direction in the blistering heat, passengers fanning themselves with anything available as the temperatures climbed into the upper 90s. And then the bus reached the end of its route: Dongsishitao, one subway stop south of Dongzhimen. The characters look sort of the same to my untrained eye, but it was definitely the wrong location. Still, though, no problem. I hopped on the subway and took it one stop north, only needing to wait about 10 minutes for a train, subways running less frequently on Sundays than weekdays. From Dongzhimen, the familiar walk back through a high speed bus lane combined with a hazardous construction zone, dodging buses, open manholes and cement trucks on the potholed road with no sidewalks. Just part of the charm of Beijing.

And then, almost an hour in upper 90s temperatures later, I was at home. My ice cream had somehow worked its way to the bottom of my pack, the lid came off, and it melted all over everything. $6 worth of ice cream ruined, and a huge mess made of my pack, all in the name of saving a $1.50 cab ride home. I ended up taking a shower with my bag, Cookies and Cream swirling down the drain.

There are few places in the world that you can escape the quick-serve restaurant. China is no exception. I make it a point when I visit a country to sample the local fast food, and I’m doing it here so you don’t have to.

Quick serve isn’t a new phenomenon to China, but the chain restaurant was an utterly foreign concept prior to KFC’s entry in the late 1980s. KFC already had successful enterprises in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and their local market knowledge allowed them to become quickly successful and grow rapidly.

Other chains have had varying degrees of success, some more than others. Here in Beijing, there is a tremendous variety of fast food, with many familiar chains.

Remember how I mentioned that products here often have the same name, but they’re not the same thing? It’s the same thing with fast food. McDonald’s has a menu that is half chicken parts and/or chicken sandwiches, chicken being the most popular meat here. The Filet-O-Fish is also available. Based on my unscientific observation, it seems McDonald’s sells more ice cream and chicken than it does burgers. Incidentally, a Big Mac, Fries and a Coke will set you back $2.20, but the Coke doesn’t taste the same as it does at home (soft drinks are less sweet) and the ketchup doesn’t taste the same either (it’s more sweet). The Big Mac, however, is more or less the same.

KFC doesn’t have an English menu. You can get the Colonel’s original recipe, but you can get a lot of other things too. They appear to sell parts of chickens Americans don’t normally eat. For instance, there is one appetizer that looks an awful lot like deep fried chicken feet–I’m afraid to try it.

Subway has a few outlets, and the menu is more or less the same. They do have some different types of sauces, but overall Subway is the same everywhere in the world. I haven’t eaten at Subway here yet because I just haven’t been able to muster the motivation to try something this unexciting (at least there are variations in the McDonald’s menu).

Dairy Queen (aka DQ) is here with the same menu as you see in the States. Their most popular item seems to be ice cream cones. Chinese people *love* ice cream, and eat tons of it on hot summer days. They don’t seem to do a brisk shake business and Chinese people don’t seem to understand (or be able to afford) Blizzard or the more elaborate ice cream creations. As well, Cold Stone Creamery attracts a lot of curiosity but not many sales.

There is a Burger King at the airport. I don’t like Burger King and can’t motivate myself to pay $8 round-trip on the train just to eat there. However, I did try the lone Beijing Fatburger at the Diplomatic Residence Compound. A meal was $9, but the onion rings were perfect and the burger was top-notch. Of course, the drink was locally produced and wasn’t as sweet as soft drinks in the US, as to be expected. Also as to be expected, the ketchup was locally produced and was sweeter with less vinegar.

Pizza Hut is all over the place, and you’ll find Dominos too. Both menus are quite a bit different, with toppings and combinations we would find unusual (like fish). However, it’s not like Japan which is outright crazy when it comes to pizza (think pepperoni and squid pizza topped with a fried egg).

On the topic of Japan, there are Yoshinoya noodle shops popping up all over the place. Considering China’s long-standing rivalry with Japan I find this surprising, but the stores seem to do really well. I’m told the menu is significantly different, cheaper and less adventurous than Japanese Yoshinoya outlets. Given that I don’t frequent the place in either country, it’s hard for me to say.

China has some home-grown fast food chains as well, such as Xiabu Xiabu (a hot pot place). There’s another big one with a logo that looks like Jackie Chan’s face and a name entirely in Chinese. They serve all sorts of fried noodle dishes.

Back to American chains, there are a few Sizzler outlets, with underwhelming (though shockingly expensive) menus, service and quality. And right in the middle of an alleged local prostitution hotbed you’ll find the Hard Rock Cafe.

In general, it seems that unless an outlet is catering primarily to foreign tourists, the menu needs to be localized. The items that sell best are the cheaper items, but they won’t sell at all if they’re unappealing to Chinese consumers. This means more chicken and fish, and less beef at the lunch and dinner table. It also means more interesting spices and more complicated preparation. It should be interesting to see how the Beijing fast food landscape grows.

What does all of this mean? Nothing in particular. This is the world’s largest market, and ultimately the market will dictate whether American chain restaurants are relevant. Some (such as KFC) definitely make the cut through their familiarity with the local culture.

I’m munching on actual, real, honest-to-goodness Doritos. They were purchased at one of the most expensive and exclusive Western grocery markets in town, a place called BHG Food Market located in the upscale Sanlitun Village. And they cost 62 yuan, which is $9.11 at the current exchange rate. It’s nearly a 40 minute subway ride and a 15 minute walk away, so a Doritos run takes nearly two hours. It’s a serious commitment, dodging Beijing traffic, beggars and street vendors. Not for the faint of heart.

Why, you may wonder, would I go to such lengths to obtain American junk food? Well, it’s simple: crunchy, salty goodness. You can buy a bewildering array of snack food in China. Pringles and Cheetos and Cheerios are sold here and they look like familiar brands, but they’re not the same product. They may somewhat resemble what you’re used to seeing at home, but they just aren’t the same.  This, by the way, is a recurring theme; there is a laundry detergent called Tide but it’s nothing like the real thing. Anyway, everything made locally is (obviously) made for local tastes, which generally means it’s loaded with enough MSG to cause a migrane. The flavors are unusual too, such as sweet and sour fish or steak-flavored Pringles. Most unusually, snack food tends to be sweet here. Believe me, it’s jarring to bite into a potato chip coated in corn syrup and flavoring that resembles nothing you’ve ever tasted, but definitely not good from the Western perspective. Keeping in mind that stinky tofu is a popular snack in Beijing, you can probably appreciate the difference.

I don’t eat a ton of junk food, but the thrill of the hunt is half the fun. BHG has all sorts of products I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. You can get Florida’s Natural fresh orange juice for the low, low price of $11 per half-gallon. Cans of Prego spaghetti sauce are on offer for about $6. You can even buy frozen pizza, imported from Italy because that’s closer than the US, for nearly the price of fresh pizza (around $7). Even real Wisconsin butter, or New Zealand butter, both sold for around the same high price. Even Bounty paper towels, for the low low price of only $5 per roll. You can get anything here, says every Beijing expat. What they often neglect to include is “…and it’ll cost ya.”

Mmmmmmmmm, salty crunchy goodness. At least the roundtrip subway ride to my $9 nachos was only 60 cents.