Forget Ding Ding Xiang. Forget Donglaishun. When real Beijingers want a good mutton hot pot in the middle of winter, they head to Jubaoyuan, in Niu Jie.
Why Jubaoyuan? The mutton and beef are fresh and delicious, the prices are reasonable, the traditional bronze hot pots are steaming and atmospheric, and the shaobing are the best in Beijing.
There’s also no better place to experience the classic “hot and bustling atmosphere” (renao 热闹) of a well-loved Chinese venue – perfect for the depth of winter. Jubaoyuan is packed with families, couples, and groups of friends day and night, and there’s always a wait at prime meal hours.
One of the reasons for Jubaoyuan’s excellence is its location in Niu Jie (牛街), Beijing’s main Muslim Hui neighborhood. Niu Jie has a long history of purveying some of the city’s finest beef and mutton. Jubaoyuan is no exception to this tradition: it even has its own butcher around the corner from the restaurant, and it, too, always has a line snaking out the door. Both the restaurant and the butcher are also halal (清真 qingzhen), which Beijingers tend to associate with cleanliness and quality when it comes to traditional Beijing foods.
And indeed, Jubaoyuan does mutton hot pot (shuan yangrou 涮羊肉) the traditional Beijing way, in a beautiful, charcoal-burning bronze pot (铜锅 tongguo). There are several good reasons for having a bronze pot aside from mere aesthetics. For one thing, it eliminates the need to fuss with a tank of natural gas at every table – always a plus when there are men drunk on bai jiu around. The bronze also helps the water retain its heat, so you don’t have to wait too long for the water to come to a boil before dropping in morsels of raw food to cook.
Part of the fun of hot pot at Jubaoyuan is the almost-ceremonial assortment of plates and bowls: the excellent dip of sesame paste brightened by a dot of plum sauce and a dot of mild hot sauce, the sweet pickled garlic, the scallions and coriander leaves. Then there’s the hot pot, of course, and the platters of raw food to be cooked in the hot pot.
Now, you have to order mutton when you’re here, because it’s really the best. And don’t dump a plateful of mutton into the pot at once: First of all, hot pot is meant to be enjoyed slowly and leisurely. Second, shuan yangrou is really all about the shuan (涮), which means to wash or rinse quickly – in this case, to “dip” a slice of mutton into the hot pot to cook it ever so briefly. No more than 20 seconds (in boiling broth, which it should be). The mutton will be sliced so thinly that it cooks in a flash. It’s helpful to keep track of your meat in the bubbling turmoil of the pot – I barely let them escape from my chopsticks.
The “select mutton” (精品羊肉, jingpin yangrou, RMB 25) arrives frozen and thin, with a reasonable fat to lean ration. Yang shangnao (羊上脑) has nothing to do with brains, as the Chinese name might suggest, but instead comes from a sheep’s neck/back/shoulders, and is especially tender and evenly marbled with fat. Shouqie xian yangrou (手切鲜羊肉, RMB 25) is hand-cut lamb that arrives fresh and not frozen, edged with firm, creamy fat – wonderful for those who like the flavor of mutton.
Don’t like mutton? Aside from an assortment of vegetables and other goods to cook, Jubaoyuan is a great place to try some halal and Beijing specialties.
The yipin shaobing (一品烧饼, “first class shaobing”, RMB 1 each) easily live up to their name – they’re the best in Beijing, and I’ve eaten a great many respectable shaobing in my time. Served warm out of the oven, they’re smaller than usual, with a crisp, sesame-studded crust that shatters with each bite. The interior is finely layered, pillowy soft, and subtly spiced with cumin and peppercorns. One could easily eat two or three at a time; we bought 10 to go and they were nearly as fine the next morning too.
I’ve never seen the “haw berries in crystal,” or shuijing shanzha (水晶山楂, RMB 15), anywhere but here, and so I order it on every visit. Bright gems of haw berries are suspended in a translucent gelatin that has been dyed a blushing pink by the red fruit. It’s like a terrine de fruits en gelée or a refined and re-imagined candied haw berry (bingtang hulu), but not as aggressively sweet as the latter. Very refreshing in the midst of a hot and noisy meal.
Another classic Beijing Hui food is the “sugared rolled fruit” (tangjuanguo 糖卷果, RMB 22). Mashed Japanese yam (shanyao 山药), Chinese dates, candied fruit, and nuts are first steamed into cakes; next, the cakes are sliced and fried to a golden, delicious crisp. They’re served hot here (unlike at some all-day snack shops), sprinkled with sugar and tart haw berry jelly. The crunchy, caramelized edges of the cakes are my favorite part…. Or perhaps my favorite part is where they tell you that this is good for you because of the fiber, vitamins, and protein in Japanese yam, which is considered by traditional Chinese medicine to be a qi-strengthening food.
I would go to Jubaoyuan every week, if time permits. But perhaps that’s not such a good idea, because whenever I’m in Niu Jie I try to visit all my favorite spots, and so I would just end up eating everything: niangao from Bai Ji Niangao is a must, and sometimes I opt for the steamed rice cakes with dates and yundou beans (芸豆) at Yebaohe Zenggao (叶宝荷甑糕) next door, too. And there’s also the Xinjiang raisins vendor, the baozi vendor, the Hui bakeries, Nailao Wei’s creamy rice-wine fermented milk custards…map]
5 Niu Jie (south of the halal supermarket)