One restaurant in Thamel puts Chinese firepower on full displayCleanliness may not be Jiu Ding Xiang’s strong suit, but its food is surprisingly good.
There’s a piece of colloquial wisdom that goes something like this: “If you are visiting a Chinese restaurant in Thamel, do yourself a favour and don't visit their washroom.”
The rest of the city might have rolled out a potted-plant-lined red carpet for Chinese President Xi Jinping, at Thamel’s Jiu Ding Xiang restaurant, nothing is changed and everything is as expected.
Jiu Ding Xiang is one of the many Chinese restaurants that can be found in Thamel, and it comes with its requisite untidy bathrooms. The bin in the toilet is overflowing with waste; the tap water is laden with iron and leaves a strange taste in the mouth. The interior of the restaurant is like every other Chinese restaurant in the neighbourhood, which means no thought or money has been spent on frills. But there are several miniature Chinese flags placed all over the restaurant—on the staircase, the pillars and the cash counter. The huge wall-mounted television plays a Chinese military drama, which shows a group of very good-looking gun-toting Chinese female soldiers.
Just as one of the female soldiers in the drama draws her gun and starts firing, a plate of laziji, the Chinese version of chicken chilly, arrives. The dish looks more fiery than the actor’s gun. The laziji at Man Tang Hong, which we reviewed a few months ago, had chunks of chicken, heaps of dried red chillies and a generous amount of Sichuan peppercorns. But Jiu Ding Xiang's version plays with a lot more ingredients. There are large pieces of capsicum, whole pieces of flattened garlic and singed slices of onion. The chunks of chicken at Jiu Ding are also larger and not deep-fried, which leaves them slightly crispy on the outside but moist and juicy inside. The innocuous Sichuan peppercorns add a numbing tinge to the dish, but it is the dried red chillies that pack heat. Just a single piece of one of these tiny suckers is enough to send your nose running.
The soldiers on the TV drama are now in a helicopter, which sports a huge red Chinese flag. Two diners, who have just finished placing their orders, are now immersed in the action. One by one, the soldiers jump from the helicopter into a river.
Once the last of the soldiers has jumped, a server walks to our table with a gigantic bowl in his hands. "This is the boiled meat," he says, and leaves with no further explanation. Unable to decide which curry to order, we had gone with the staff's recommendation. But what he had forgotten to tell us—and we had failed to ask—was the size of the dish. So now we have a massive bowl of thin sheets of pork swimming in a thick red oily gravy—several shades deeper than the Chinese flag—with menacing whole red chillies, and more chillies in the form of tiny flakes. Shredded cabbage and lumps of garlic stare intimidatingly out from the dish's ungodly portion.
The rich oily gravy might be artery-clogging but does wonders to the rice, coating every grain a glistening shade of rouge. The Sichuan peppercorns add an oddly satisfying mild numbness, but the devilish amount of chillies violently overcome the desensitising pepper and assault the palate. The abundant use of red beans adds a mild nuttiness. The generous cabbage in the dish adds a pleasing crunchiness and the thin sheets of pork, which have probably been tossed and fried in a searing wok, have curled satisfyingly against the heat. But the flavour that monopolises the dish is the chilli’s heat. The portions mean that more than half of the dish is left uneaten, and is packed to go.
Kung pao chicken, which arrives at the table shortly after the boiled meat, provides a much-needed respite from the fervour of the two dishes that preceded it. Chunks of stir-fried chicken, carrot and cucumber, cut into small square-shaped cubes, dried red chillies and peanuts, glazed in a sweet sauce, are a soothing escape following the spice of the other two dishes. There's a hint of garlic that adds a mild mouth-filling flavour from the otherwise sweet dish. The cubed chicken pieces are tender; the peanuts and carrots add varying levels of bite, and the cool cucumber does what it does best, providing a slightly watery but crunchy texture.
The next dish to arrive is the braised eggplant. Skinned eggplant has been braised with chopped red chillies and garlic so that it is soothing to the taste buds. Some might find the sticky dish rather bland, but after all that firepower, the relative flatness of the eggplant is appreciated.
By the end of the meal, it’s hard not to like what Jiu Ding Xiang has to offer. The food is reasonably priced, the portions are generous, the service is casual and quick—all of which are essential ingredients for a pleasant restaurant dining experience. But also important is a tidy bathroom with tap water that doesn’t leave your mouth feeling like rusted iron. But anyone who’s dined at a Chinese restaurant in Thamel knows that trade-offs and compromises are a must.
Jiu Ding Xiang Rs 200 to 1,580 per person