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?
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.
Then I spy the chef zipping off on a motorbike. Last night wasn’t a hallucination. Whew!
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.
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.
“Zhen hàochī!” (That was delicious – because apparently phrasebooks the world over think delicious is the only compliment necessary).
With a full belly and utterly sated.