Heavenly Hole-in-the-Wall (Stew Communist)

Queued up down the block.

Queued up down the block. (Note the flag top centre).

Every now and again without any information at all, I find a place I know I have to try. Not needed to know what is on the menu because when the line up stretches 30 deep for over 2 hours in a place like Old Town Luoyang, there has GOT to be a reason. What’s more, I need to discover why people are happily waiting in line.
Chinese are not good at waiting in lines, constantly cutting in front of each other, arguing and trying to avoid a queue, so what makes this place so much better than all the other shops along West Street?

Cursing the discovering and gorging and indulging on Food Stall Row I simply cannot stuff more food into my belly, luckily I do not leave Luoyang until tomorrow night, so I already have dinner planned. Right here.
Lined-up inside the hole-in-the-wall (next day).

Lined-up inside the hole-in-the-wall (next day).

Only, the next day the restaurant has disappeared! WTF! I stalk along West street from Lijing gate to the intersection of North, East, South and West roads. It’s gone! Last night the line stretched down the street and a flat screen TV projected some broadcast focusing on the chef’s food. I took pictures of the chef the night before. What is going on? This makes no sense. I do the only thing I can think of, I scroll through my photos and focus on the pictures before and after I found the restaurant, narrowing the already narrow search zone more. Finally, I get lucky, I look closely at the flags flying along the street, as Old Town shop names flutter in the wind for pedestrians to be able to read from afar which shop they’re looking for. For me, it’s a game from a reality TV show wherein I’m simply trying to match the iconography and… whaddaya know… I get lucky as the first flag I focus on happens to be the one in my picture.

Making the most popular stew in Henan.

Making the most popular stew in Henan.

Then I spy the chef zipping off on a motorbike. Last night wasn’t a hallucination. Whew!

Within a minute I’ve located the tiny hole-in-wall shop, looking abandoned by day, he clearly only opens for dinner, after the sun starts to set.
The train departs at 7:45PM, an overnight back to Nanjing for my debut cricket tournament, shortly after 5 and already a line has formed.
I join the customers waiting to order and when I get to the cashier she asks me a question I know but don’t understand, “Nǐ xiǎng chī shénme?” (What do you want to eat?) I do what I always do in this situation… I improvise. I scan the diners and see what the most common looking meal that’s been ordered and point to it, then I wisely add some bread as well before continuing my journey to the Stew Communist Chef.
Stew for you!

Stew for you!

Only, when I get to the front of the line he is anything but Soup Nazi like, when he sees the “lǎowài” (foreigner) a huge grin spreads across his face and his eyes light up. He delights in serving up the food, he looks at me quizzically when he reaches the spicy red paste I love so much. “This?” he asks with his facial expression. “Shì,” (yes) I reply. His eyebrows climb higher up towards his bald pate. Asking silently “Really?” I nod, “Shì”. He beams and adds a healthy dose of spiciness to my bowl.

Unsure what he added or what makes this place legendary I can tell I’m a special customer before he exits his shotglass sized kitchen to find me a place to eat. I wanted to dine outside, but when the chef leads me to a nearby, indoor table, I know manners dictate I dig in there. And I do.
It’s a simple enough dish for the most part; raw liver (I think), chicken, spring onions, something tofu-y and boiling broth. The broth quickcooks the liver, there might be a few other veggies in there, or another meat but I can’t discern why the crowd until I bite into the meatballs. Ho-Lee-Crap! Crunchy yet cooked, moist yet firm, seasoned in a way I cannot fathom it all makes perfect sense.
Heavenly stew with addictive meatballs.

Heavenly stew with addictive meatballs.

THIS is what draws the swarms of gastronomes to this tiny, dilapidated spot. These meatballs are insanely good. My students use ‘delicious’ to describe any meal above good. It doesn’t have any meaning. Instead these meatballs surpass scrumptious, speed past heavenly and approach ambrosial.

Easily the best meal during my stay in China.
I devoured the stew in moments then approached the kitchen, pushing through the line that had yet to diminish to announce…
“Zhen hàochī!” (That was delicious – because apparently phrasebooks the world over think delicious is the only compliment necessary).
The Stew Communist beamed his infectious grin and I headed back to Nanjing through Lijing Gate.
With a full belly and utterly sated.

3 thoughts on “Heavenly Hole-in-the-Wall (Stew Communist)

  1. Do you think your Dad would survive in China?? Such interesting and descriptive commentaries on your dining experiences. Well, tonight we will have bland chicken, plain mashed potatoes and perhaps boiled cauliflower on the side! Bring on the spicy red paste…..NOT! Keep the blogs coming, we love them.

  2. Pingback: Food Stalls Street, Luoyang | Byron and his backpacks
  3. Pingback: Cultural Complexities | Byron and his backpacks

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