What: Think of it as a younger brother of the shish kebab. Chuan’r is a skewer of grilled meat, usually lamb, typically cooked over an open flame and seasoned with liberal helpings of cumin and chili peppers. They are a relative newcomer to the food scene in Beijing, a city filled with dishes and delicacies dating back centuries. Just 20 years ago, you’d have to venture into the scattered, small communities of migrants from the far western region of Xinjiang to find them. But the popularity of chuan’r exploded when Beijingers discovered it was the perfect snack to feed the then exploding nightlife scene that accompanied the city’s economic growth these past two decades. Today, a metal skewer of greasy meat is still the preferred way to cap off a night of karaoke and a few too many Tsingtao beers.
Where: Occupying a small storefront window, Yang Ji (杨记, 202 Gulou Dong Dajie, 鼓楼东大街202号, map) can more easily be spotted by the crowds milling about the nearby sidewalks, enjoying their freshly grilled chuan’r and adding to the bristling trees of used metal skewers with wooden handles (a classy touch you won’t find at most chuan’r joints) sprouting from steel buckets at their feet. Despite the heavy volume of orders, the cooks in their immaculately white chef outfits are careful to grill each chuan’r just right, using a heavy pair of scissors to cut off burnt edges as they rotate each skewer over the flame.
When: Daily, 11am-11pm
Order: This one’s easy–there’s just one thing on the menu: lamb chuan’r (yang rou chuan’r 羊肉串儿) for 10 RMB each. Let the cooks know if you don’t want cumin (zi ran 孜然) or chili pepper (la jiao 辣椒), and they’ll happily oblige. Yang Ji’s chuan’r are slightly pricier than most, but you definitely get what you pay for, with some of the thickest chunks of meat around, and just enough fat to add a hint of rich buttery taste.
Alternatively: If you’re looking for some more variety to your chuan’r, as well as a more leisurely spot to enjoy them, the place to go is Xiao Zhang Chuan Ba (小张串吧, on Xingfu Yicun San Xiang, 幸福一村三巷, map), located on a quiet side street between the city’s two nightlife hot spots, Sanlitun (三里屯) and Gongti (工体). With its wide terrace and plastic tables and chairs, it’s the perfect perch for people-watching in the wee hours of the night. In addition to the classic lamb chuan’r, it also offers grilled beef, barbecue chicken, and a variety of vegetables (the eggplant, qiezi, 茄子, is particularly good).