Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Old Jack’s Bar

Our after-dinner drinks go up in smoke

Old Jack's Bar
Old Jack's Bar

We had espied this bar from a bus earlier in the week, and it looked like something we’d be into. Located on a relatively quiet street, Jack’s has a nice outdoor space, and the inside has a simple, cozy pub feel. And they had (non-Tsingdao) beer on tap, which is something that we almost never see.

After our Italian feast, we were hoping to sit back and settle in for the night. The vibe was relaxed and calm, and the drinks were nice and tasty. (Martini status: Good, dirty and strong!)

But, indoor smoking! I keep forgetting that, in most places here, no one has Bloombergered those butts outside. After one round, these non- and recovering smokers needed some air. The patio was full-up, so we sadly said good-bye to Old Jack.

Next up: Wedding-photo crashing …

Oct 2, 2012

Summer vacation: Finding that Spark

Beer and pizza still works in China

A wide sampling of the Spark menuReal microbrewThe Spark exterior

Just up from May 4th Square is The Spark, a modern little microbrew pub specializing in fancied-up American diner food. The whole menu is tantalizing (and we were seriously tempted to come back for brunch), but we ultimately settled on a pizza, a salad, a steak sandwich with fries, and pickles. (Pickles are emerging as a surprise contender in the “what do we miss most” game.) And, of course, beer.

Beer was the big reason we sought out the Spark, having read that Beer City actually had its own microbrew. And though we were well full up on Tsingtao (this was the meal had after our brewery tour), we did have room for one more — especially one more made small-batch, on the premises.

It was absolutely fantastic. The beer had a golden honey color, a good head, and it was cloudy and full of flavor. The food, also, did not disappoint. Everything we ordered was comforting, authentic and delicious. The steak on my sandwich was beautifully marinated, and it was served with hard-boiled egg slices, making it extra hearty. Peter’s pizza did pretty well by the standards of pizzas we’ve had in China.

We read about this place on some expat boards (obviously; we still don’t speak Chinese). But, as we’d seen in most of our western dining experiences in Qingdao, the Spark’s patrons were a good mix of westerners and Chinese. And everyone looked to be having a good time.

Now that we’re well fed, let’s get out on the water …

Sep 28, 2012

Summer vacation: Beer Street

Where the streets are paved with suds

Tsingtao Stout
Lovely Beer Street
Of all parts of China, here’s the place to sit and have a beer — a cold one, if you’re lucky.

So, the Tsingtao Brewery Museum is conveniently located on a nice strip of pavement called Beer Street. Makes sense.

In addition to the museum, restaurants (mostly seafood) with ample outdoor seating line the block. We had plans to go downtown for dinner, however, so we just stopped in for a quick drink at one of the quieter places. This is where we found the elusive Tsingtao Stout — a beer not commonly stocked in other parts of the country. And it was good! Since it was bottled, it lacked the metallic taste of the canned German stouts that we buy in Luzhou.

Room for one more? How about some non-Tsingtao Qingdao beer?

Sep 27, 2012

Summer vacation: Tsingtao Brewery Museum

The secrets of “China’s well-known trademark”

Inside the Tsingtao Beer MuseumInside the Tsingtao Beer Museum
Here is me, sticking my head in their giant copper vat. It was for display only, nothing was inside.
Inside the Tsingtao Beer MuseumInside the Tsingtao Beer Museum
There are beer cans on the roof of the museum!

Brewery tours everywhere are pretty much the same: “Here are our grains, here are our giant copper vats.” But you can’t go to Beer City, China1, and not visit the place where the beer was made!

It turns out, actual beer making plays only a small part in the Tsingtao beer museum. The bulk of the two-building installation takes you through history of the brewery. The early German era is represented mostly through advertising from the time and recreations of old equipment. The intervening years, in which the brewery hit some hard times in the form of both quality control issues (ex: a bottle of beer shipped with a brush inside) and a tanking economy post-World Wars, are summed up in text on a couple of placards. The exhibit really gets going in the modern age, when Tsingtao started to get its stuff together as an international brand.

Touring the Tsingtao Beer MuseumTouring the Tsingtao Beer MuseumTouring the Tsingtao Beer Museum

This period is treated with a slew of corporate speak, and a lot of attention is given to the slogans the company used. In the ’90s, Tsingtao made the huge step of changing their expansion strategy from “First bigger, then stronger,” to “First stronger, then bigger.” There’s a photographic display of the Tsingtao brand around the world: a Russian pop star drinking a bottle, an American with a 纯生 tattoo (translation: “pure draft”), a neon ad in the movie “The Mummy 3,” etc.

After catching up to the present, the installation turns toward environmentalism. There are large posters outlining Tsingtao’s commitment to the green movement, but also a small display explaining what environmentalism is and why it’s important. They suggest Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” as a good starting point, if you are unfamiliar with the concepts discussed.

Touring the Tsingtao Beer Museum

Then comes the bar. Like all good tours, this one includes a (small) free sample of the product. But surprisingly, the tour isn’t over there. Outside the bar area, there is a little display on beer making throughout the ages. We completely breezed on by it. Next, we walked through some pretty big replica fermentation tanks and other machinery, all staffed by grotesque plaster figures. It’s tough to say if this would have been more interesting before or after the beer.

After a pass through the gift shop, there was another bar! This time, this really was the end. Our tickets had a stub good for another free beer, which of course we redeemed. It was early evening and we were on vacation, so we also bought a small pitcher. As we drank, we sat at the end of a long wooden table and watched the Chinese tour groups disgorge from the tour. You could tell who was with who, because each group had its own member hat or backpack.

At the end of the tour

We watched group after group ganbei and skeddadle. As we’re learning, Chinese generally do not linger over meals or drinks; It’s consume and go. Which is alright, because it gives us slow pokes plenty to watch.

One of the funniest things we spied happened several times: the reverse photobomb, in which nearby tourists tried to sneakily capture us in a photograph of their friends. The giggling usually gave it away.

Follow us as we stumble out into the street …

1: The beer is called Tsingtao because that’s how 青岛 was Romanized back in 1903. When pinyin was adopted in 1949, the spelling of the city’s name changed to Qingdao. But it’s the same place. (See also: Peking duck, from Beijing.)

Sep 23, 2012

Summer vacation: Fatema Indian Restaurant

The best Indian meal in China so far!

Fatema Indian RestaurantOur mealOur meal

The exterior of Fatema Indian Restaurant was modest and unassuming. It was in the middle of a quiet block that we had written off as non-commercial on a previous jaunt through the Hong Kong Garden neighborhood that the restaurant called home. Inside, the setup was no more fancy — but the smell of spices wafting through the air was immediately inviting and set our taste buds to watering.

The owner and staff of the restaurant are all Indian residents of Qingdao, and we had heard that Fatema was the most authentic of the city’s (two) Indian places. With Bollywood videos blasting on the overhead TV, we looked over the menu. The hardest thing to do was to not blurt out, “One of everything, please!” We narrowed our choices down to an aloo chaat, a chicken curry dish, a cauliflower something or other (I’ve got to take better notes!), garlic naan, spring rolls and the most delicious spicy pickles. The cauliflower was kind of a dud compared to the rest of our dishes, which were absolutely glorious. The chicken was tender and well-seasoned, and the aloo chaat was savory and rich. The star of our meal, though, had to be those pickles, which were tangy and sweet with just the right amount of heat.

We only managed to eat about half of our meal, so we took the rest to go. Back in our hostel room, we didn’t have forks, but the leftovers still made a fantastic midnight snack.

Qingdao’s signature attraction is up next …

Sep 22, 2012

Summer vacation: Beer in a bag?

Yup. Beer in a bag!

Beer and BBQ
Beer in a bagThe corner bar is pretty much just stools and kegs outside The wonderful Beer MamaBeer Mama's future dinner
Beer Mama is a neighborhood fixture in the old town. You can even find word about her online, although I don’t think she is aware of her Internet presence.
This chicken was to be Beer Mama’s dinner later in the week. She was feeding it beer to make it extra tasty.

While they weren’t all as refined as the Ratskeller, the streets of Qingdao were filled with places where one could enjoy an outdoor beer. Scattered throughout the old town were tiny little establishments that basically consisted of a few kegs and some folding chairs. During the day, trucks from the brewery rumbled through the neighborhood dropping off fresh beer, and at night, locals and tourists alike crouched around the small tables for a refreshing drink. Some of these places also had a little grill, and you could order delicious skewers of meat.

Beer was sometimes drunk out of a mug, but often it was sipped straight out of a plastic bag with a straw. (This could get precarious.) Neighborhood denizens would even stop by to get a to-go bag for home consumption. Lighter to carry than a growler, I guess.

Our favorite of these sidewalk bars was run by a woman who called herself Beer Mama. Ask around in the neighborhood of the Kaiyue Youth Hostel and you’ll find her. She knows just enough English to entice western passers-by to come sit and drink her beer. And she gets a lot of takers. “Beer Mama’s beer is the best,” she said one night (thanks to the German guy at the table next to us for translating). “It’s good for the brain.” She also admitted to drinking a lot of her own wares herself.

The way to the bathroom
Peter, on his hunt for the bathroom: “It was like playing ‘Resident Evil,’ when your flashlight is dying, and you’re about to be killed.”

The only drawback was the bathroom situation. Even out of a bag, a liter of beer can fill you up. On our first night at Beer Mama’s, we saw other customers going in and out of the building that we were set up in front of. They handed off a flashlight to each other as they came and went. When we got to a point where it came to alleviate the problem or go back home, Peter stepped up to check it out. An Australian girl gave him the flashlight and directed him toward the building.

On his return, he reported the situation: “It’s terrifying in there.” Apparently, the “bathroom,” was a grate in an outdoor courtyard in an apartment building. But the whole area was pitch black, and there were mysterious noises coming from all directions. “I swear I heard a zombie sputtering from a room down one hallway,” Peter said. That’s when he turned around. We’ve acclimated to many things in China, but we both decided that this was a sign to call it a night.

But it definitely did not dampen our enthusiasm to return!

Coming up, it’s time to eat again!

Sep 21, 2012

Summer vacation: Zwei bier, bitte

Hoisting a stein in the Far East

We've got sauerkraut
The Ratskeller

With all that German-ness around, it made sense to check out some German cuisine. The Ratskeller is on the luscious grounds of the former German governor’s residence, and it has an absolutely beautiful outdoor patio. The night was pleasantly warm, and the cicadas droned their lovely bagpipe tune all through dinner.

As is our habit, we shared many dishes between us so as to taste the most of the menu. The food was slightly on the bland side, though there was a squash soup that was pretty good. But my schnitzel was flavorless and the sauerkraut lacked bite. It’s possible that the cooks didn’t really understand the flavors; Peter’s salad had both shaved Parmesan and nori. But it was nice to have something different, and now I’m further inspired to try to make my own sauerkraut at home. (So many projects!)

A gentleman of leisure
A gentleman of leisure enjoys his martini.

The martinis were also weak and bland. But the beer (Tsingdao, of course) was served in tall, frosty steins, and it was just delicious. The drinking culture in China is completely different from the United States (it’s basically: do shots until your wife has to carry you home), and all summer I was dying for a place to sit outside and just sip a good brew. So if nothing else, the Ratskeller did that well.

You may be asking, “Isn’t this a beach town?” Well, hold your horses, we’re getting there …

Sep 21, 2012

Summer vacation: Bathing Beach No. 6

A stroll in the sea air

The famous Tsingdao pagoda
The famous Zhan Qiao pier, next to Bathing Beach No. 6

Bathing Beach No. 6 was just a short walk from our hostel. The strip of sand itself is not much to talk about — small, dirty and crowded. But there was plenty of activity in the immediate environs. The boardwalk was a bustling hive of sightseers and vendors. You could buy coconuts, boat rides, sunglasses, bathing suits, Crocs, fake Crocs … pretty much anything remotely beachy.

Zhan Qiao pier juts out into the sea adjacent to beach 6. Like “May Wind,” the pier is a celebrated landmark in the city. Huiquan Pavilion, at the end of the pier, is emblazoned on the label of every bottle of Tsingdao.

It wasn’t a place that enticed us to swim, but the area around beach 6 made for a nice evening stroll.

Drinking coconutsBathing beach No. 6
Left: Coconut milk, straight from the source! Right: That’s pretty much the extent of the beach.

Sep 20, 2012

Summer vacation: A May wind in August

A waterfront history lesson

The May 4th monument
The bay

“五四,” I told the cab driver. Literally, that translates as “5-4” but it can also mean May 4th, as in May 4th Square, one of Qingdao’s major landmarks.

The plaza is just off Fushan Bay, which is where all the Olympic sailing stuff happened in 2008. The main feature of May 4th Square is the giant red “May Wind,” the largest non-moving steel sculpture within a city in China, according to the plaque.

We didn’t look it up until much later, but the sculpture commemorates a pretty significant event in Chinese history. Here’s a quick and dirty summary: Back in World War I, China joined the Allies on the condition that all German holdings in country — specifically Shandong Province, location of Qingdao and Qufu, Confucius’ birthplace — would revert to China. But the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles gave Shandong to Japan. So on May 4, 1919, the students took to the streets in protest. The movement quickly spread to workers, businessmen and the intelligentsia, and China refused to sign the treaty.

Extreme May 4th

Japan still assumed control of Shandong. But this is where things get pretty complex. I haven’t read nearly enough to fully grasp the particulars, but out of the intellectual revolution that followed the protests of May 4th emerged the Chinese Communist Party. So that pretty, red sculpture is pretty important.

Shopping stalls

Today, the square is a beautiful place to relax. The bay is ringed with beachy, touristy shops, and people strolled back and forth, checking out shells and beaded necklaces and such. We watched people flying ornate kites as the sun set. After sunset, spotlights illuminated “May Wind,” giving her a noble presence even in the dark.

Next: You mean we aren’t the only Americans in China?

Sep 20, 2012

Summer vacation: Mingling with ex-pats

Introverts meet extroverts, have a good time

Our new friends
The most fun drinks are on fire! A few of us tried a little absinthe.

We were going to make it an early night. One post dinner cocktail at the Old Church Lounge, and then bed. But, at the bar, we met Marisol.

Marisol was a very outgoing member of a group of students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They had done a three-week program in Beijing over the summer and were in Qingdao for a last hurrah before finals and then a return to the states. They invited us to join them for a night on the town and our early bedtime evaporated.

This bar was no fun
This bar was not fun.

We struck out at a defunct jazz club and a too-smokey and -loud bar before we settled on a just right pub with an outdoor patio. (We knew we were with a good crowd when it wasn’t either of us that had to complain that bar number two was too awful.)

We spent the night drinking fun drinks and trading adventure stories and impressions of China. One of them asked us if we lived with a bunch of hillbillies, which was a surprising show that east coast prejudice against western China is so obvious that westerners pick up on it. But it was all in good fun. We even managed to talk politics without any acrimony. Particularly insightful was Ricky, a Beijinger who worked at a car dealership and another of Marisol’s recruits from the hostel.

It got late and we returned to the hostel and said our goodbyes. There was no pretense that we’d keep in touch. It was just one of those transient ex-pat nights that can be really sad if that’s all you have, but is really fun as an occasional adventure.

Tomorrow we dine on schnitzel!