OFF THE WALL: The delicacies of Ghost Street
BEIJING (AP) The live carp swimming in tanks should have been a sign. Same thing with the shirtless chubby guy slipping what appeared to be live crawfish down his gullet while chugging beer.
The menu would have been a dead giveaway, but we apparently didn't pay much attention to that, either.
Lured by the bright lights and smiling customers, we wandered into a restaurant along Beijing's Ghost Street, hoping to get our first taste of authentic Chinese food. Instead, we got a crash course - a slimy one at that - on exotic delicacies.
Yep, we're talking shark skin, porcupine brains and deep-fried chicken claw.
Now, don't get me wrong. I appreciate that people in different cultures have palates far more diverse than ours. Eating the parts we discard is less wasteful and the wide range of foods has to be better for your health than cheeseburgers and pizza. There's a reason Americans are fat.
But for someone who has a hard time choking down sushi, the idea of eating baked Hunan donkey or marinated three-striped box turtle is right up there with licking an ash tray.
Thing is, that's the typical fare you'll find along Ghost Street.
Once an all-night market - the name came from the ghostly hue of the shopkeepers' lanterns - Ghost Street is now a popular eating and drinking spot for locals and tourists. The divided street, known as Gui Jie to Beijingers, is lined with dozens of ornately decorated restaurants, red lanterns forming a canopy over sidewalks filled with bicyclists trying to weave through the crowds.
I went to Ghost Street with AP sports writer Bernie Wilson, trying to get away from McDonald's and the media center cafeteria meat skewers. Feeling slightly emboldened from trying cow tongue earlier in the day - a tad rubbery, not bad taste - and a visit by Mr. Jack Daniels, I was ready for some Beijing flavor.
I had no idea what I was in for.
Ghost Street is lined with dozens of restaurants, from questionable holes-in-the-wall - almost literally - to mood-lit modern places that would be right at home in Manhattan.
Skipping a few of the sketchy-looking ones and avoiding the aggressive hosts along the way, we stopped at a place with no front wall, bright table cloths and rows of red lanterns hanging from the ceiling. There were plenty of customers inside, many of them Westerners, which we figured was a good sign.
A quick glance at the menu made the place seem palatable, so we decided to give it a try. Once inside, though, we got a better look at the menu: deep-fried rabbit, snake head, spicy frog, duck web, boiled eel shreds. Disgusted, we turned into the guy from the Bud Light commercials, replacing "dude, dude, dude" with "ew, ew, ew" as we flipped through the pages.
Then we noticed the swimming carp and the half-naked dude doing crawfish shots with beer chasers.
A little scared now, we crossed the street and came across a restaurant with chicken on the menu. It also had large intestines, pig liver and cow marrow, but there was chicken. Chicken was good.
But after sitting down and ordering a drink, we noticed the pictures on the menu: all the food was raw.
Here we go again.
Unable to get a clarification from the waitress - her English wasn't very good, our Chinese nonexistent - we ordered something called chicken balls, hoping it just meant rolled up chicken meat.
A waiter came out with a butane burner a few minutes later, lit it and placed a pot of what looked like chicken broth on top, covering it with a lid. We were then led to a bar filled with spices and sauces, returning to find a tray of gummy balls sitting atop strings of cabbage.
"Dude, no way I'm eating that," I said.
We stared at the plate for a little while a Chinese version of "Dust in the Wind" played through the restaurant's speakers. Then the waitress came over giggling and dumped the chicken balls into the pot.
"Wait three minutes," she told us.
Ahhhhh! Finally it was clear: cook the balls by dipping them into the boiling broth.
Colleagues had told us about this tasty style of food called hotpot, but we couldn't seem to figure it out, even with a hot pot sitting in front of us.
Turns out, it's pretty good, too.
Maybe next time I'll try out the jelly fish or duck intestines.