We’ve been fans of the authentically spicy flavors of La Wei Xian since 2014, when we added the ramshackle restaurant to our Night Eats tour route in the Laoximen neighborhood. The stop was a favorite of our guests for years, but in August 2017, Mr. Liu fell victim to the redevelopment of the Old Town area and was forced to shut down his shop when the local government wouldn’t renew his food and beverage licenses. As more and more family-run businesses closed to make way for high-rises and condos just a couple months later, we moved our route to the Jiangsu Road neighborhood.
But Mr. Liu has never been one to give up, and he’s always got his eye on the bottom line. He is the type of guy who will spend hours trying to convince you to go on a four-day road trip with his whole family (totaling six members) back to his hometown of Zigong, Sichuan, in a Winnebago that is meant for two at best, just to split the gas money. So it came as no surprise when he messaged us about a year after his shop closed that he was opening up a private kitchen in his home for special guests. His brother, the original chef, had returned home to Zigong, but Mr. Liu just laughed and told us that he was always a better chef than his brother anyway.
Our first dinner at his “private kitchen” was just a block from his original location, in an apartment that was tucked deep into the nongtang (residential alleyways) and up a rickety flight of stairs. He set a cramped table for six beside his twin bed, under an inexplicable oil painting of a shirtless Vladimir Putin canoodling with disgraced Chinese film star Fan Bingbing. The entire place measured less than 100 square feet, including the kitchen and its one wok burner. About halfway through the meal, Mr. Liu realized he had forgotten to order more gas and the tank was running on fumes, so he poured hot water over the canister he had set up under his wok to warm up the remaining gas and finish our last few dishes. A few months later, his kitchen’s overworked, tiny exhaust fan had given up the ghost and his neighbors started complaining about the kitchen smells and traffic in the stairwell. He knew it was time to move on.
Mr. Liu’s new place is in Xuhui district, about 20 minutes away from his original location. To make a reservation with him, you can add him on WeChat and he’ll add you to one of his group chats (the one we’re in is maxed out at 500 members) where he sends out availability for the next two months every day so guests can book. Once you’ve made a reservation, he’ll send a detailed, if slightly misleading map showing how to get there, and strict instructions not to tell anyone why you’re in the apartment complex.
When coronavirus was at its peak in China back in late January and February, Mr. Liu and his family were already home celebrating Chinese New Year in Zigong, so he closed up shop for those months. But business has been booming since he returned in March. His new private kitchen has quintupled in size, and has three single-table dining rooms and a double burner kitchen. Table sizes range from 7-12 guests, and he does lunch and dinner service now. His wife is on hand to deliver the dishes, but she leaves most of the cooking up to him, and his new tiny poodle is leashed up in the bathroom when guests arrive.
The Putin painting has not been hung yet, but the décor is somehow even more eclectic. The ceiling is covered in Day-Glo wallpaper painted with blue skies and white puffy clouds. There’s a “window” onto the streets of a Tuscan village, and the fake brick wallpaper on the walls is sometimes hung correctly, but on other strips the shadow goes up rather than down. His bed, still prominent in the medium-sized room, has gone from a twin to a queen and he’s got a fancy new computer that prints out photos of his customers (for special guests, he tapes their picture on to the Italian portico).
And the food? It’s delightfully spicy and just as good as it was back when his brother served up dishes in an actual restaurant. Portion sizes are about double what they used to be, so while the prices per dish may seem steep, you’ll be getting a hulking pile of meat and veg. Must-orders include cold dish appetizer 蒜泥白肉 (spicy garlic and pork belly with Chinese leeks) and mains 鱼香肉丝 (“fish-flavored” sliced pork), 回锅肉 (twice-cooked pork) and 牛肉蒸笼 (deep-fried beef in a steamer basked). The 水煮鱼 (oil poached fish) is also fabulous, but watch out for the bones – unlike at most restaurants that serve deboned fillets, this one comes just as it would in any home in Zigong. Be prepared to order extra rice and liters of coconut milk to tame the burn that comes from his spicy food.
Beer is served, but you can bring your own alcohol if so desired.