Saturday Night Fear Factor

Last night, in between imbibing pretty cocktails at Q-bar and thumping to the DJ’s European beats at Punk, I scored a major gastronomical triumph. I managed to persuade some very foreign friends to sample that “frightening but irresistible” stew I mentioned in my previous post.

“Mao Xue Wang” quite literally means “hair, blood, vigorous,” a rather precise description of this spicy, oily concoction of tripe (I think that’s what the “hair” refers to, cilia), blood tofu (just like blood sausage, but square-shaped), intestines, arterial walls (or is it esophagus?), spam, and some harmless vegetables (wood ears, or in last night’s case, thick vermicelli noodles).

The night had started out with very tame food and beverage choices. A large group assembled at Q-bar for a friend’s going away party. After two years in Beijing as a sometimes-frustrated journalist, A was headed to London for a coveted internship with the Financial Times and gathered her friends for one last shebang.

Having been away for a few years I was a complete nightlife newbie. I had no idea what the visually arresting array of new mega-malls, glitzy restaurants, and darkly promising clubs had to offer. I looked up Q-bar on the internet before I set out and was pleased to find it had its own website, but then promptly displeased (yet not at all surprised) to find the web link broken. Google Maps told me it was in the middle of the San Li Tun bar district and I copied down the phone number, which saved me from giving bad directions to our cabby.

Q-bar was a bit of a hidden gem. To get to the rooftop spread we had to enter through the sparse- and stern-looking reception area of a 1980’s state-run hotel, take the lift to the top, then walk past rooms 502 and 503 and go up a flight of stairs. I was surprised to find such a budget and thoroughly Chinese-looking hotel set in the epicenter of Western activity in Beijing. San Li Tun has many retail and entertainment outlets that don’t even have Chinese names. The bar was impressive – large, faintly glowing red from beneath the floorboards, and partitioned into cozy lounging areas.

The weather, either as a result of the day’s rain or as an early harbinger of the cool autumn that’s to come (oh how I’ve waited for it), was perfect for a few drinks en plein-air. I ordered a ginger martini, which sounded promising but was actually exceptionally spicy and low-grade alcohol tasting.

The friends arrived. I had invited T, my new Swedish friend whose buxom blond good looks unfortunately get her confused for a high-class Russian escort sometimes. P was my husband’s friend from Boston, with an accent so thick that I feel like I’m on the set of “Good Will Hunting” if I close my eyes and listen.

After a few rounds of drinks – I later went with safer choices, like chardonnay – and amusedly flipping through P’s pocket phrasebook, a small laminated filofax that allows him to point to the address of any destination in Beijing, I got the late night hunger bug. I started raving to my friends about Mao Xue Wang, half joking that it’d be the perfect grub to warm me up pre-clubbing, but not believing for a second that anyone would join me in partaking of this “blood stew.”

T, bless her heart and palate, was game for it, as long as I promised I’d go dancing afterwards. The rest of our group took some persuading, but soon I was out on the street dialing directory assistance on 114 to find out if two of the posher spicy food restaurant chains had an outlet nearby. Neither one answered and we gave up on the idea, taking to the street to search for anything to fill us up. We stopped at the closest open restaurant, sat down, and voila! There it was – Mao Xue Wang -prominently advertised on menu page one.

With this stroke of luck it seemed we were destined to have a bit of organ soup. The waitress gave me a strange look when, without looking through the menu, I straight up ordered one Mao Xue Wang, a beer, and a few bottles of water.

When the stew was brought out it was in one of those oversized serving bowls and just looked like a big vessel of chilies and oil. I prefaced to my friends that this was not the best-looking Mao Xue Wang I’ve seen, maybe a bit too oily and lacking fresh chilies.

We picked up our chopsticks, or at least T and I did, and I pointed out the various constituents of this murky stew much as a weatherman would indicate oncoming storms on a blue screen. I served each a piece of spam, the least suspicious “meat” in this dish, to my Caucasian friends and husband.

T took a bite and proclaimed it good, then plunged her chopsticks to get at the better stuff. Apparently in Sweden there is a similarly frightening dish – large chunks of fried blood – so she was no novice at eating hemoglobin. P looked at his spam disinterestedly, but after seeing the girls heartily partake he asked me one more time whether it was “really just spam” and proceeded to eat. Meanwhile, T was going in for a sampling of each of the parts, affirming that the arterial walls (or was it esophagus?) were indeed “crunchy.” P got increasingly adventurous as he downed his Yanjing Pure beer and even snipped a small corner off a piece of blood tofu and popped it into his mouth. Only G remained unmoved by the spicy bits I laid on his plate.

I’m happy to report that the stew was generally a hit and it did power us “vigorously” to 4am as we danced to creative mixes at Punk (a small club located in a very high-ceilinged, glass-paneled, airy building). As I teeter tottered across the cobbled pavement on my way home I teased G gently about his refusal to try the blood stew to which I am so partial. He promised he’d try a “very small” piece next time, and we shook pinkies on it.

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