"No one has a bad thing to say about this dapper expat favourite, and rightly so: it has never let its standards dip over the years.” — Lonely Planet Guide to China, 2017
I broke open the soup dumpling and a pink-grey slime oozed out.
It was the end of a disappointing dinner at 1221, which opened in 1997 and burned bright in this city long before most of us arrived here. Twenty-one years later, its light has dimmed but it still attracts a dining room full of FOBs on an average weekday night, ordering garlicky green beans and sweet-and-sour pork.
The dumpling looked like Play-doh and tasted like glue. I was the last person to grab one out of the steamer; the rest of my friends had already ingested theirs. As I tore mine apart and the contents slowly dribbled plate-ward, I could feel the regret move around the circular table.
This was bad.
It’s hard to be a tourist in China. For one, you are primed to expect one of the world’s greatest cuisines, but the language barrier means that most of it is probably inaccessible. There is no great guide to eating in this country, or even in this city, and it’s hard to know who to trust. In this absence, unreliable websites like TripAdvisor and misguided books like Lonely Planet assume outsize influence. Underpaid or underinformed writers tread on the safest ground, rehashing the recommendations of ten or twenty years before, and so one ends up with restaurants like 1221, which has little going for it other than an English menu and an English-speaking staff.
I wanted to be reminded how tough it is to be new to China, and to be a little humbled, so I gathered a table of long-term China expats, some who speak the language fluently, some who don’t, and most who have been here for the majority of the past two decades. They all had 1221 stories and they almost all dated back to the early 2000s, in their first or second years here.
I’m in no position to say if the food was better then, as I never visited before last week’s dinner, but I sure as hell can comment on how the food is now: exceedingly average to aggressively bad. And I am a staunch champion of Shanghainese food, which makes up the majority of the restaurant’s menu.
I broke with the Shanghainese theme when necessary and when it seemed like the thing to do, either via Dianping, my table’s collective memory of the place, or the unsubtle coaching by the Shanghainese waitress. Perhaps I should have followed my instinct but we were all excited at the prospect of lemon chicken, a proper never-in-China Chinese dish, and then horrified at the tubes of breaded chicken that came out, sitting on a pool of industrial lemon goop.
Was it lemon-scented floor cleaner? SunQuick “lemon” concentrate? Citrus custard? Instant Jell-O?
It was not pleasant. And it was on most every table in the place, which went from empty room to buzzy scene of expats at the stroke of eight pm, clinking wine glasses over their sweet-and-sour pork.
The rest of the meal was not a redeeming experience. The crispy-skinned, pressed duck (xiang su ya) that the restaurant is known for was passable but starchy, and the deep-fried pork chop, a barometer for any Shanghainese restaurant, no better than what any ayi could pull off at home. The garlic green beans tasted like garlic — surprise — and the fried bananas at the end of the meal, a gift from the kitchen, were fried in the same breadcrumbs as the lemon chicken. Was that a hygiene risk? An irresponsible deduction? Or just anxiety about a kitchen that was able to send out such hideous soup dumplings with a straight face?
In 1221’s defense, and to my table’s eternal embarrassment, we managed to eat everything. Not a piece of fried duck or a slice of pineapple from the sweet-and-sour pork remained. We spent 90 minutes spinning food around the lazy susan to each other, keeping up a running commentary about the degree of badness of individual dishes, and making shocked faces about that lemon chicken. What started out as offensive quickly became normalized, and my friend with one of the biggest objections to the fried chicken lemon debacle was, karmically, the first one to take a second piece. It was the car-wreck effect.
You can’t look. You can’t not look.
I’d say that goes someway to explaining the mysterious pull of 1221, which is located down an alley off an on-ramp to the highway, but then the other tables were there by choice, not a bunch of snobs on assignment. And it certainly doesn’t explain the private rooms full of Chinese customers — people who should know better! — that flanked the main dining hall. No, 1221 remains an enigma, kept afloat by the residual benefits of once being good, supported by people who will trade some competence in the kitchen for the ease of ordering in English, and, maybe, the one-time novelty of being a Chinese restaurant with a wine list.
It’s a fine place for your first trip to China. Just don’t order the dumplings.
1221 is at 1221 Yan'an Xi Lu, near Panyu Lu.