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BBQ eatery fires the imagination

updated: 2010-07-01

There is just one problem with Bo Wei Yuan, an excellent barbecue joint located on Jiu Gulou Dajie in a sea of street stalls and grillrooms that pump out lamb kebobs and chicken wings: You almost expect to be served the ubiquitous meats on a stick.

On a late night, it's easy to think that every restaurant in the neighborhood dishes up the spicy street food. Skewers litter the sidewalks, smoke from a grill seems to rush out of every front wall and metal plates, typical dinnerware stack up high on outdoor tables.

Bo Wei Yuan blends in too easily, its dark gray exterior matching all of the other achromatic buildings. Inside, there's little fuss except for the cute photos of dogs hanging on the walls of bamboo. Many passers-by look at the restaurant's outdoor menu, see the dishes of grilled meats and keep walking.

Well, they miss out. Bo Wei Yuan is excellent precisely because it takes Chinese grilling to a different level, one that lovers of American dry-rub barbecue will find familiarities in. Not coincidentally, the restaurant's name roughly means a compromise of taste between tradition and from abroad. 

But make no mistake, there is no compromising on the meat. Brined in pineapple and red wine before it's grilled, the slices of beef tongue have hints of honey and fennel and are unbelievably moist. The hunks of lamb are not overly spiced nor overcooked as they are in most restaurants in Beijing. Instead, it's fall-off-the-bone tender with touches of anise and brandy. The chicken is succulent and roasted sweet. Packed onto a plate and served with a sweet chili sauce, the three meats were devoured quickly.

The beef, however, was a bit chewy. Cut from the cow's belly, a sliver of tendon runs through every slice. Co-owner Simon Tang, who opened the restaurant in December 2008 with friends Jack Yao and Tian Yong with the goal of providing cheap good food for the masses, chose the cut because it is inexpensive. Tang said recently that he didn't want to pass on the prices to the majority, who "should be able to afford food that's cooked well. The rich have enough already". A typical meal for two costs about 90 yuan. 

The restaurant also has a number of small cold dishes that, like the meats, take unique turns to traditional fare. The spicy taro noodles with abalone sauce was almost tropical in its sweetness. The shredded turnip is simply dressed in lemon and honey, instead of drenched in vinegar and sugar.

Tang and company have big plans that follow their penchant for spinning tradition on its head. Next month or so, they're opening up a hot pot restaurant either in Sanlitun or Chaoyang. Their twist? Patrons will be able to decide between Tom Yum soup or goulash for the soup broths. The new restaurant will apparently offer chocolate fondue for dessert.

If you think that's a recipe for disaster, the trio will likely shrug off the bad vibes. They've heard the negative criticism before. Three years ago when Bo Wei Yuan opened, their friends discouraged them from continuing the restaurant, calling it too risky when the flow of customers was slow.

And though the restaurant still isn't packed every night, perhaps its obscurity in a grill-happy area is a good thing. This is a treasure to be found, especially when you're just plain sick of the normal street nosh.

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