Illicit beef is the most delicious beef.
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.
We had driven out to western Shanghai, found the obscure elevator to the fifth floor, taken off our shoes and sat at the table sunk into the floor, when the waitress came over to our table, bowed down to our height and asked if we needed an introduction to the menu.
She pointed to the right side of the menu. “This is the black-haired cattle from China. Tongue, rib, sirloin, tenderloin,” she rattled off quickly.
“And this side,” she said, pointing to the hand-written page on the left-hand side, “this is the ‘imported’ beef.”
The quotation marks hung in the air. The prices edged up into the four figures.
"From where," I asked, even if it was obvious from the location, the décor and the Zen sand garden in the back of the restaurant.
A smile spread across her face. She mouthed the name of the country but wouldn’t say it out loud.
This is Tie Wu
, the "Iron Room", a secret hideaway for ‘suitcase beef’ from a country whose beef is not legally allowed in China, and easily one of Shanghai’s best yakiniku
restaurants. I’d been many years ago, when it was five tables in a tiny room off Shuicheng Lu. In the intervening years, they have expanded into a full-size restaurant with lacquered décor and fancy grilling tables with built-in exhaust systems (no hanging pipes from the ceiling here). The suitcase has grown in size. The quality remains as high as ever.
You come to Tie Wu to eat beef, and only beef. There are other things on the menu, including the Tie Wu salad...
...a towering pile of shredded cabbage with a soy/sesame dressing, but the focus of the restaurant is on that hand-written first page, a throwaway insert easily removed and discarded should the beef police ever show interest. (I would guess they are probably customers, not adversaries, knowing China.)
There are several ways to order. You can stick with all Chinese beef, which is a perfectly acceptable way to order — the thick-cut beef tongue is especially nice — or you can pick a particular cut, like say sirloin, and then order both the Chinese and the heavily marbled “imported” beef for comparison’s sake; or, if you are feeling like just eating beef-flavored butter and your bank account has shock absorbers (the highest grade sirloin, at 300 gram, is 1,080rmb), you can go strictly with the imported stuff.
After my recent visit, I’d suggest the comparative approach. It’s not easy to eat 200 or 300 grams of beef so fatty and so marbled that it turns a light pink color, and melts when you eat it with little resistance. The Chinese beef offers a bit more bite and a bit beefier flavor, and it keeps the bill from spiraling out of control. As a point of reference, my party of three ordered moderately and then splurged on one 600rmb “imported” sirloin steak (200 grams), and our bill came to 2,560rmb.
It’s not cheap. But then illegal substances never are.
Of note is how good Tie Wu’s service is, which starts at the beginning with getting a call-back reminder and confirmation for your reservation (you will need to reserve), and continues throughout, from the waiter or waitress expertly guiding you through the ordering and helping you balance your choices, to the impeccably clean (brand new?) metal grates set over the live charcoal, changed every few dishes, and the spotless bathroom.
China has been on a beef buying spree in the past year or two, signing trade agreements with several countries to import meat that was previously banned or restricted — America, France, Britain, Brazil. In 2016, the country became the second-largest beef importer in the world after the United States, buying more than 800,000 tons
. For us, the regular people, the beefeaters, it’s slowly starting to manifest in grocery stores and restaurant menus, a positive move for people who enjoy a steak from time to time.
With any luck, the diplomats from North Asia are working on a trade agreement that will allow one of the world’s greatest beef producers back into the Chinese market. Until then, suitcase beef and import rebels like Tie Wu will have to suffice.
Tie Wu is at the 5th floor of Lian He Guo Tower, 213 Chengjiaqiao Zhi Lu, near Hongzhong Lu.