The streets just south of Beijing's Tiananmen Square are an incongruous mix. Qianmen Street, which shoots straight south from Mao's Mausoleum and the Great Hall of the People, is a long-standing pedestrian thoroughfare lined with storefronts, now including a Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop and a Zara clothing store. The street's 500-year-old look was refurbished in time for the city's 2008 Olympics.
But turn off of Qianmen, and a visitor steps back into a more ancient and gritty Beijing. On Men Kuang Hutong, tiny mom-and-pop stands sell rou jia mo, a delicious sandwich of slow-cooked pork and cilantro nestled in pocket bread. Other restaurants tout their homemade baijiu, an esophagus-burning rice wine, and hot pot served from copper vessels.
As you wind your way further through the hutongs—the narrow alleyways that once made up almost all of Beijing—you reach Lazhu Hutong, where Muslim restaurateurs rush around to serve guests at tables set up in the street. It's one of Beijing's best-kept secrets. Lamb and duck, along with onions and cilantro, are marinated in the spices of the Silk Road—cumin, chili, salt, pepper, cardamom, turmeric. Diners cook up their own meals on a cast-iron griddle set over a bucket of scorching hot coals on each table.
These alleys—where diners spend hours chatting, smoking, drinking, and eating at tiny outdoor tables—are diminishing. Beijing is transitioning from a city of grease-smudged kitchens to one of high-rise malls packed with boutiques and Sichuan-fusion cuisine joints. Since the 1990s, the city has demolished hundreds of these old neighborhoods.
For now, though, smoke still pours into the sky from the street-food alleys, and Chinese mix with westerners keen to experience the "real" Beijing.
In the northeast area of the city, not far from one of Beijing’s most beautiful temples, Yonghegong, there sits a tiny alley called Beixinqiao San Tiao, the third hutong up from Guijie, or Ghost Street. Here you'll find one of the few remaining lamb-leg streets, where diners choose an entire leg of lamb or mutton and grill it themselves on a rotisserie slung over a charcoal pit, again set on individual tables.
"There were once 30 alleys, at a minimum" that sold grilled lamb legs "before the city started clearing out the hutongs and began taking them down in 2001," says Adam Gottschalk, a local beer and bourbon importer who leads food-centered walking tours for The Hutong, a Beijing cultural center. "Now there are two left."
Other Asian cities, such as Tokyo and Hong Kong, have managed to keep lively outdoor eating areas alongside swankier development, says Colin Chinnery, a Beijing artist and curator whose Chinese grandparents owned a siheyuan—a courtyard home on a hutong—just east of the Forbidden City. But Beijing seems to be promoting a more posh lifestyle, he says. "As people's cost of living and wages go up, their standard of living goes up," Chinnery says. "It's kind of understandable that people want to go to more upscale places."
There's another factor hastening the decline of street restaurants, he notes. "If you have modernization and you see that the urban environment needs to be cleaned, then you understand that the hygienic condition of these restaurants leaves something to be desired. People are more careful where their food comes from, and they want to know what they're eating," he says.
The Beijing government dealt a further blow to street-barbecue restaurants by announcing a ban on grilling earlier this year, arguing that it contributed to Beijing's notorious air pollution. The ban really hasn't stopped people from grilling outdoors, even though the government has warned it will photograph violators at night and give them warnings during the day.
The rule makes no sense, says Ricky Wang, a local beer salesman who grew up in Beijing. "It's part of Beijing's people's lives. Sometimes, we want to drink a beer and have outdoor barbecue." Besides, he says, it's a big city. It's impossible to enforce the ban everywhere.
Back on crowded Lazhu Hutong, barbecued lamb seems more popular than ever. It takes some maneuvering for us to nab a tiny table and a few low stools. An elfin man lugs a kettle filled with hot briquettes, which he plops into an indentation in the center of the table. The heat pours off the coals. Another waiter lays a cast-iron griddle on top of the kettle and we place portions of lamb, duck, and onions on top. We also order fermented tofu, riddled with blue veins like a sort of fancy cheese, which we smear like butter across fried bread. Dinner for three—including three large beers—is 119 yuan, or $19. There are no other westerners in sight.
Meanwhile, on Beixinqiao San Tiao, the young expats are almost equal in number to the Chinese slowly turning lamb legs over charcoal pits. As the leg cooks, diners use a long knife and fork to slice off chunks of lamb and continue grilling them on the rack below. As the fat drips down, the fire flares up. When the lamb is cooked, diners grab a piece or two with chopsticks, wrap it up in a wide lettuce leaf and add chopped nuts and a fermented chili bean sauce. Motorcycles roar through the lane, smoke billowing into the sky.
It may be that the last truly loyal customers of Beijing's dying street-dining scene are foreigners. "I occasionally go to the hutongs, and it's always to meet a western friend," says Colin Chinnery.
These streets are "awesome" right now, says Adam Gottschalk—but in two years, they could well be gone. "Meanwhile," he says, "I'm always thinking of that famous quote from Yogi Berra: 'Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.'"