When a menu is written only in Chinese characters, it presents a language barrier for foreigners. When a restaurant offers a Mandarin-only menu and requires diners to handwrite their order in characters, that molehill becomes an actual mountain. But Zhang Mama doesn’t care – diners have been queuing up for upwards of an hour outside the dingy hutong restaurant for a bite of its Sichuan cuisine since it opened in 2009. Why? It’s equal parts delicious and cheap.
Demand got so high for this hole-in-the-wall shop that they opened two more shops, one just down the street from the Dongcheng district original and another in Chaoyang district. But it’s still not easy to get a seat during peak mealtimes.
The signature dish here is 钵钵鸡 (bōbō jī), loosely “chicken in a bowl,” but in reality a hodgepodge of ingredients, served in a deep pot filled with spicy chili sauce. Similar to mala tang, diner select skewers strung with meat, quail eggs, tofu and vegetables, then plunge them into a bowl of chicken broth fired up with chili oil and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns to marinate.
Unlike traditional bobo ji, where most of the ingredients are par-boiled and finish cooking in the pot, Zhang Mama serves them already cooked in a room-temperature stock. In Beijing’s blistering summers, the juxtaposition of cool sauce and spicy chili is refreshing, but when winter comes around, we look to the rest of the varied menu for warmth.
Sichuan’s most famous dishes are all present and excellently represented, so you would do well to order any of them. Bell dumplings (钟水饺, zhōng shuǐjiǎo), dan dan noodles (担担面, dàndàn miàn), mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐, má pó dòufu), kungpao chicken (宫保鸡丁, gōng bǎo jī dīng) and twice-cooked pork (回锅肉, huíguōròu) are all crowd pleasers.
And then there are our two favorite dishes, which sound deceptively simple but haunt us still. A cold dish of crunchy lotus root paired with pickled peppers (凉拌藕片, liángbàn ǒu piàn) was gone too quickly, its sour-spicy flavors bewitching our palate. And, if you haven’t already discovered the magic that Dongbei (northeastern) Chinese chefs work on broccoli, Zhang Mama’s Sichuan take is a good place to start. Here, the cruciferous vegetables (蒜蓉西兰花, suàn róng xī lánhuā) are flash-fried with Chinese chives and garlic. At RMB 12 per small plate, this might be the best bang for your buck in all of Beijing – and that includes jianbing.