A trip to Beijing isn't complete without sampling imperial cuisine, the food prepared for the Emperor back in the day and known for its refinement, complicated preparation and hard-to-obtain ingredients. On suggestion from both my cousin and a few expat locals, we found the perfect place to sample this Beijing specialty -- Li Jia Cai, a restaurant located in a traditional hutong. Hutongs are the old courtyard-style homes in Beijing that house multiple generations of families and are still peppered throughout the old parts of the city.
Li Jia Cai is a gem among the restaurants serving imperial cuisine in the city. Most places cater to tourists and shove in buses full of them in droves, tossing around platters of loose interpretations of the cuisine. Instead, Li Jia Cai operates out of the Li family's hutong, and family members themselves prepare and serve the food under the supervision of the family patriarch, a retired math professor who happens to have a passion for imperial cuisine. The hutong only has six tables available for one seating per night; the last one is at 7:30 each evening. Reservations have to be made weeks in advance, but when I called, it turns out the restaurant had a cancellation earlier that day, so by sheer luck, we were in.
The walk on the way to Li Jia Cai gives a glimpse of daily life in the hutong
Imperial cuisine is highlights just one ingredient and emphasizes quality over quantity, although from the looks of our meal, it didn't seem that low quantity would be an issue. The menus at Li Jia Cai are all set menus, but you can choose your set menu based on a price range from RMB 260 per person (around $38 USD) and upwards to RMB 2,000 (around $290). The prices increase based on the rarity of the ingredients, which include abalone and shark's fin on the upper range of set menus.
Every menu, regardless of which one you choose, starts with an array of cold dishes, including a boiled bok choy leaf wrapped around spicy mustard seeds, a simple carrot slaw with daikon, a pate made from green beans and this dish pictured above that's actually made from fermented mung beans (a small green bean popular in Asian cuisine). This dish was one of my favorites -- it was earthy and had a slightly gritty texture reminiscent of a good chicken liver pate. Drizzled with a bit of chili oil, it was a refreshing little bite.
The hot dishes also arrived on small plates meant to give each of the four of us one of whatever was being served up. My favorite was the tang chu pai gu, a braised sparerib in a sugar/vinegar sauce. The meat fell off the bone, and the sauce was delicate yet flavorful.
Throughout the night, every dish presented to us resonated that theme of elegant simplicity. The spareribs were just lightly sauced and highlighted the porkiness of the ribs. A fried chicken was lightly battered and presented cut into strips (pictured above) and accompanied with shreds of crispy flash-fried water spinach. The whole dish emphasized crunchiness, which presented in both the chicken and the spinach. The slightest hint of salt and pepper amplified the dish just perfectly.
Even the courtyard itself was understated -- just a few rooms in the hutong, with a narrow shared corridor. The simple setting for such highly evolved cuisine reinforced my belief that great food happens all over Asia in all sorts of unexpected places. All it takes is a little faith ... and a canceled reservation.
Li Jia Cai | 11 Yangfang Hutong | +86-10-66180107 | Open every evening; reservations are essential