Monday, August 18, 2008

"Tapas" in Chinese means "deep fried but cold in the center"

Here it is 4:55AM and the sun is just breaking through the clouds, casting pastel shades across the giant cranes across the street in the ship building yards. It's funny when you're offered the "harbor" view at this hotel. You think "Coronado Island" and its associated marinas and sailboats. What you get are container ships, massive equipment and the eternal flame at the pertochemical plant across the bay. Circumstances aside, a sunrise is almost always cause to wax poetic and so I will regale you with the tale of last night's outing.



After getting settled we headed out for dinner at a Spanish Tapas restaurant over by the Russian Tourist Street. Yes, multiculturalism is alive and well here in the Vancouver of Asia. Before going though I tried to stop by my room and discovered that my key was not working. Heading down I went to the front desk and asked to have it replaced. The very helpful young man told me it was fine but re-programmed it anyway and informed me that I could get this more easily fixed on the 25th floor as I was a VIP and entitled to such service. I responded that I understood that but since I was on my way down to go out, I thought I would just do it here. He smiled in agreement and said "Congratulations." His English sounded great, I guess he is now working on the context component.

We decided to walk as it's not a super long haul and it wasn't all that hot compared to Shanghai earlier in the day. You have two choices on routes - one that winds through business, shopping and middle-class neighborhoods and another which heads down to the street that parallels the aforementioned ship yards. It's character is far more seedy and so we chose that.

Early evening is the time of day when life in Chinese cities starts to move out into the streets. Along this path it meant workers in the massage joints sitting on little stools and enjoying a bowl of noodles before the evening work begins. Small shops that turn into restaurants at 6 PM were throwing open their doors and seating people for an early dinner. Along one stretch we passed at least one "sex shop" per block, selling what appeared to be toys. I didn't feel compelled to get to the bottom of that particular mystery and so we went on. More and more people eating and visiting on little tables on the sidewalk and preparing for whatever evening they had in store.

Getting across the main boulevards here in Dalian is a bit different than it is in the bigger cities because the drivers have little or no respect for pedestrians. In Shanghai, it is rumored that running down a westerner carries big penalties like filling out endless forms at the main police station. Here, there seems to be no such worry - you step out in front of them, they'll hit you. Even if you employ the standard Chinese rule of street crosssing - no eye contact means you have the right of way. So the safe bet is to find a local and put them between you and the traffic and use them as sort of a human air bag. We employed this time honored method and finally got across the last main street before our destination.

I've previously described the Russsian Street so I won't go into it again aside from saying it's even busier in the warm months than it was in the winter. And the endless supply of Marushka Dolls has not dwindled a bit.

We found our destination and went in. One of the waitresses showed us to a table upstairs. Our table was massive, composed of wood lattice with a glass top. The chairs were even bigger, being a wrought iron version of equipale with pads for sitting. It was remarked that they would be useless in a bar fight since no one could pick one up for throwing.

We ordered a round of Mahou Beer, "an authentic Spanish cerveza", the proof of which being the matador on the label. Wasn't bad, a bit like Dos Equis.

The menu was quite well appointed so we decided to forego the main course and instead go the traditional tapas route of a had dozen or so little dishes.

The first course was small shrimps served frying in a cast iron skillet with oil, garlic and chiles. It was quite good. Second and third rounds were little chopped, boiled potatoes covered in what seemed to be a sauce made from white and red mayonaise. One was called "Garlic" and it was, the other named "Brave" and they gave no indication of their fortitude but they did taste very good.

Next up were a couple of croquette dishes, one with chicken mush in the center and another with ham and cheese. The former was good, the latter is the source of the title of this blog, because although deep fried, they cold in the center. A big fat warning flag here in China where food safety is serious business.

Which brings me to the thought I've been having on the food shows we watch at home. Bourdain, that goofy guy that eats all the weird stuff, the hippie chick on "Globe Trekker", all of them love to go on and on about street food and how it's the heart and soul of any locality. I suppose it is, but the potential price you pay for dipping your toe in that pool is a couple of days curled up on the cold tile floor of your 4 star hotel, your work schedule now blown out the window. It's probably a safe bet when you're traveling with a nurse, a case of Cipro and your filming schedule is flexible. For the rest of those, paying attention to quality, taste and finish on your food is serious business, and not something to be trifled with.

But back to dinner. The cold croquettes were a pass and I elected to forego the meatballs just on principal although they were pronounced excellent. The last dish was slices of baguetter with more of that red mayonaisse from the potatoes and a topping of prosciutto. It was excellent and a nice way to end the dinner.

We got off cheap at less than $25 apiece despite the size of our banquet and headed back into the street for the walk home. This time we took the alternate path and made our way through neighborhoods where the evening dining was really underway. Two block of one street was narrowed down to a single lane of traffic due to the dozens of white plastic tables and chairs set up to create a giant outdoor cafe. Hibachi men cooked chicken and sea food over charcoal grills while people sat and ate with big bottles of cold beer on the tables. Every ten or so yards, a flat screen TV was set up on crates or another table, tuned into the Olympics. people were eating and drinking and cheering for every point scored by the Chinese table tennis team. Cabs skirted the edge of the gathering, coming close to the grills as they wove among the walkers. It was quite a sight.

Being here during the Olympics is very interesting. The local papers list the medal count by gold medals won, as China leads that metric. Newspaper articles never fail to mention that the US "lags far behind" in the quest for first place finishes. It's a funny display of national pride, and it's hard to go anywhere and not find some event on a television. Yet despite the incredible consuming nature of this country, you find no offerings of souvenirs or memorabilia related to the event. It's like it's happening, but it's not.

An so that's it, another night and another dinner.

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