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Drunken Endeavors

The Professor brought me to Tonglu the first time. He's an older American dude, scholarly but lively, who talked about 13th century Chinese identity politics and ranted about fixed gear bikes with e...
2010-03-31 12:03:00

The Professor brought me to Tonglu the first time. He's an older American dude, scholarly but lively, who talked about 13th century Chinese identity politics and ranted about fixed gear bikes with equal passion.

Next to us, a table of guys in leather jackets sunk into their hefty wood chairs. An empty pitcher of baijiu – a large, glass fruit juice pitcher – dominated their table. Half smoked cigarettes and ash piled up around the minor art installation of beer bottles crowding their feet. They sat in silent stupor. At another table, two guys slurred at each other through a cloud of cigarette smoke. They took turns filling each others glass from a decorative bottle of huangjiu and toasting to oblivion.

We drank yangmei jiu, a watered-down and sugared-up baijiu flavored with waxberries, and weak West Lake beer with our farmer food: whole gangly sweet potatoes; cured duck; a simple braised river fish. The Professor likes Tonglu's radish soup, with hulking pieces of the vegetable and chunks of salted pork. I like that the restaurant is decorated with split bamboo, hoes, drunk people, and hanging cured meat.

The second time I went to Tonglu, I brought a group of white people. Tonglu's rustic entrance is between a Dongbei dumpling joint and a Xinjiang restaurant, both magnets to the expats at nearby One Park Avenue. They all share the 379 Xikang Lu address.

The ruddy-cheeked manageress eyed us up. “You... uh... know... uh... this is a… tucai... restaurant?” She spoke slowly, enunciating every word. Tucai is rural homecooking. Clearly, we were in the wrong 379.

“Yea. We know. Seven, eight people?”

She hesitated. “Well... uh... there's a private room,” she said, making a motion towards the dining prisons sectioned off with shellacked twigs. “But,” she tried to dissuade us, “There's a minimum charge!”

“Ok. How much is it?”

“Six….. HUNDRED… KUAI.” Gotcha!


She looked at us for a moment, unsure if we were spies or idiots. Finally, convinced we were the latter, she smiled and passed us off to a smug waitress and a “room.”

She came back to rattle off a bunch of specialties and take our order: broad beans with clams and pungent Zhejiang ham; a salad of shredded rabbit and handfuls of coriander; the cured duck again; another muddy river fish; spring bamboo shoots with chicken and chicken stock; a thin and spicy hongshao rou; chicken braised with green peppers; yangmei jiu; West Lake beer.

I left drunk but thirsty. Tonglu's food is salty. It's also loaded with MSG. My tongue felt like it had been turned up to 11.

Another drunk customer barely made it past our table and to the bathroom before vomiting all over the urinals.

The third time I went to Tonglu, I booked two prisons and brought twenty people. The manageress remembered me. I poked around the edible mini zoo – handsome live pheasants, eels from the rice fields of Zhejiang, small gray-green frogs called “stone chickens” – and the pots of braised dishes and soups on display, but settled on most of the same things. Towards the end of the evening, there was a big crash in the dining room. A middle-aged dude was flat out on the floor, eyes closed, arms out to his sides. His family gathered around. He drank too much and when he tried to stand up, fell and hit his head on the table. He laid there peacefully for a minute and then they carried him off. We went back to our bamboo shoots and beer.

Tonglu is not a fancy restaurant. Its name comes from a hilly county in central Zhejiang, halfway between Hangzhou and Thousand Island Lake. The owner – and all of the produce, meat, and fish, according to the restaurant – come from the Tonglu countryside. (Big silver carp heads destined for steamers, and Nongfu Springs bottled water, come from the lake.)

The food can be hit or miss. Spring bamboo shoots are coming into season now, and Tonglu's version, in a hearty chicken broth, is their clearest hit. Bamboo shoots are to Zhejiang what Wagas is to Shanghai -- they pop up everywhere. These early spring shoots are tender and have a faint toasted vanilla aroma to them, like a waffle cone.

Tonglu's runner-up would their Hangzhou jiangya, a cold dish of cured duck. In Shanghai, jiangya gets slathered in the sweet motor oil sauce. In the Zhejiang countryside, it's a simple unadorned plate of salty duck with fatty, delicious skin. It comes with bones and a face. The neck pieces, and their stringy meat, are probably the best part. If that's not your thing, the rest of Tonglu probably isn't going to appeal to you either. Second runner-up would be the braised pig tails.

The duck is first in this triptych, followed by braised lao doufu – smoky, funky tofu – with spindly tea tree mushrooms and chunks of bony chicken, and miniscule river shrimp with soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, garlic, and chili. The tofu is a salt-of-the-earth type dish. The shrimp are so small as to be a nutritional distraction, a zero sum game of calories. They might as well be sunflower seeds.

I'd order the shredded rabbit with coriander again, shousi turou, but not the braised one, which tastes like diapers. I'd hesitate with the chicken dishes. For one, they seem to be the last dishes to arrive to the table. Tonglu kills the chickens to order, and judging by the abstract bone shapes and paucity of meat that comprise the finished dishes, it seems they do it with the back of a shovel. The little meat there is among the shrapnel has, eh, character – tough, but flavorful – but it's not enough. Fish dishes are marred by the muddy river taste.

So what's to recommend about Tonglu? Well, the bamboo shoots, the beer, the drunken atmosphere, and the rustic charm. The sweet potatoes and the sour waitresses. The jar of snakehead wine and the old cooks asleep behind their big aluminum pots. The decorative cured meat and the homemade yangmei jiu. The caged pheasants and drunk patrons and no-nonsense manageress and the shellacked twigs and the soft 70's poster of a lake, water in the foreground roiling with fish, mens with nets right on their tail, titled “Thousand Island Lake has a lot of fish.”

Tonglu isn't a great restaurant. But it has a lot of country soul.

Tonglu Shanli Renjia, 379 Xikang Lu, near Wuding Lu. Open til 4am.

More details and a map here.