Inner Mongolia is famous in China for its lamb and all the different ways it’s prepared there, whether it’s braised lamb spine or thinly sliced marbled cuts dip-boiled in a hotpot. Lamb roasted whole is always a great choice, but the more common version (and the one you won’t need to pre-order days in advance) is roasted lamb leg (烤羊腿, kǎo yáng tuǐ).
Legend has it that Genghis Khan’s personal servant was worried about how much of the nomadic conqueror’s time was taken up by waiting for whole lambs to be grilled to sate his hunger, so he asked the chef to prepare roasted lamb legs instead. The preparation proliferated around the plains with other nomadic tribes picking up the timesaving trick, eventually making it into cities, where the peripatetic tradition became rooted in northern China along with the conquering Mongolians and their Yuan Dynasty.
Tan Hua Roast Lamb Leg is the place in Beijing to try the Inner Mongolian dish. The ramshackle original location tucked down Beixinqiao Santiao Hutong is popular year-round. During summer, diners sweat over the tables-turned-grills that spill out into the laneways, barely leaving enough room for cars to creep by. When cold weather arrives in Beijing, diners head inside, where exhaust hoods suck up the charcoal plumes flavoring the lamb as it roasts on a spit.
At Tan Hua, you order the lamb leg by the jīn (斤), 500 grams or a little more than one pound), and the bone-in lamb leg arrives par-roasted from the kitchen (otherwise you’d be there for hours rotating it on the spit). Order about one jin per hungry diner.
A shallow charcoal roasting pit keeps the meat cooking while you slice off pieces with a long-handled knife. Cut when it is almost to your desired level of doneness, then finish the pieces on the grill just above the coals to ensure that they’re evenly cooked. If the wait staff sees you struggling to get a good slicing angle on the meat or cutting too early (or too late), they’ll good-naturedly take the knife right out of your hands to help you out.
Once your piece is done, you can eat it straight off the grill, dip it into the dry cumin rub and one of the garlicky sauces it comes with and/or wrap it up in a lettuce leaf. Cold side dishes are mainly there for snacking on between slicing the meat. The traditional plates, like boiled five-spice peanuts (五香花生米, wǔxiāng huāshēng mǐ) or tossed watermelon radish (拌萝卜皮, bàn luóbo pí) are worth ordering.
This place is decidedly not vegetarian-friendly, but it does serve vegetables that you can cook right on the grill under the lamb (catching all the delicious gamey juices that wastefully sizzle into the coals otherwise). Try potato (土豆, tǔdòu) or Chinese leeks (韭菜, jiǔcài), if you’re trying to add a little veg to your meal, and don’t forget the sliced steamed buns (馒头片, mántou piàn) to get the most out of the drippings. Wash it down with an Arctic Ocean (北冰洋, běibīngyáng), Beijing’s famous take on an orange soda, or 600ml bottles of local Yanjing Beer.