The problem is obvious: Beijing is full of delicious food, representing thousands of years of culinary history. Beijing is also an immense city of some 21 million people, and most visitors are not up to the task of finding the good restaurants among the subpar ones.
My first visit to mainland China is a short one of just seven days, and I want to be able to come away feeling like I've tasted some real Chinese food, the stuff that the locals eat. Enter Lost Plate, a small tour company that dives straight into the dense alley neighbourhoods (hutongs) of the old city and visits hole-in-the-wall restaurants that visitors generally can't find.
"Would you like a beer?" our guide Ernestina asks, offering me a can of Yanjing beer in a custom koozie. It's only about 6 degrees out, but I accept happily. My fiance and I have just emerged from one of the many exits of the Yonghegong metro station in the northeast of the city, where Ernestina easily spotted us among the waves of locals.
Night has fallen by the time the six of us who are taking the tour, plus Ernestina, have assembled. We walk away from the unlit sloping roofs of the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple, where two red, motorised tuk-tuks and their drivers are waiting for us. My fiance and I slide onto a tiny bench seat, face-to-face and knee-to-knee with Gene and Kath from California. We all wriggle down under the thick blanket and try not to slop our beers as the tuk-tuk lurches to life and we zoom toward the first restaurant of the night.
Six sets of chopsticks hover over six steaming dishes. "Mix it well until the noodles are coated," Ernestina instructs. My plate becomes a blur as I mix the hot dried noodles, a breakfast dish from Hubei province brought to us by a woman whose head barely clears the counter between our low, wooden table and the tiny kitchen behind her. The restaurant itself is also very small, with only a dozen places. The noodles are delicious and made entirely with sesame oil, which gives it a rich, smooth texture that a cheaper mix of peanut and sesame oils would not provide. Our chef moved to Beijing only a few years ago - from Wuhan in Hubei province - but her restaurant, with its addictive noodles, already has a loyal following.
We've been told to expect plenty of regional dishes like this tonight, but Ernestina made a point of mentioning that there would be no rice - presumably because most Westerners associate Chinese food so strongly with it. Historically, Beijingers have never eaten much rice, and the food we ate in the tour reflected that. The dishes we sampled were mostly wheat-based, such as noodles, pancakes and dumplings.
"We'll leave in two minutes!" Ernestina says, looking at her watch. Our chef waves goodbye as we hustle back outside into the cold air, and a new customer slides into one of the restaurant's few seats.
The tuk-tuk train moves on. We've all swapped places and this time we find ourselves sitting with Kristy and Kevin from Colorado. Like us, they are in town briefly, and liked the convenience of a short tour that would cover some of the key bases of Beijing cuisine.
We chat and laugh as we zigzag through the mostly unlit alleyways that make up the hutongs. While skyscrapers crowd the horizon of the city, the courtyard houses in the hutongs are low: rarely more than one story, left over from an imperial rule that decreed the houses, shops and restaurants could not be higher than the emperor's throne room in the Forbidden City. Families of Beijingers live in the small, gray stone houses for generations, weighing the advantage of living in the city center for next to nothing against the inconvenience of using community toilets.
The streets are lined with old shade trees and are surprisingly quiet little patches of ordinary community life in the center of the vast city. The few cars we see are covered with protective sheets and a thick layer of autumn leaves, and people carefully weave quiet electric scooters between bicycles. As we zip down yet another narrow alleyway, we pass so close to the people walking by that I can reach out and touch their coats.
Sticking to these dense alleys is key to the success of Lost Plate tours. When the founder of the company, Ruixi Hu, moved to the capital from Chengdu, she discovered that finding good food was hard. The Internet didn't give her the answers she was looking for. Over time, she was able to ferret out the culinary gems that she knew were hiding just around the corner, known to locals but invisible to outsiders.
Armed with these valuable addresses, Ruixi and her American husband, Brian Bergey, founded Lost Plate in 2014 and have now expanded to four cities, having added Shanghai, Cheng-du and Xian.
Restaurant Two announces itself with a small chalkboard hanging from a tree, which I'm told says "Mongolian barbecue." At the back of the room, a group of young men grow rowdy, raising toasts with small glasses of clear liquor. Plates with slices of eggplant, onion, bell pepper, lamb and pork belly are arranged next to the huge hot plate in the center of our table.
Legend plays a large role in any food culture, and China's is no exception. As our hot plate heats up, Ernestina explains the story of a long-gone Mongolian soldier who was fed up with army slop and began to cook his own meals using his metal helmet as a hot plate - the first Mongolian barbecue. "And what do you think he used for fuel?" she looks to each of us in turn. "Horse dung, of course!" she says with glee. "But don't worry, they don't use any horse dung here."
In reality, other than the lamb we're frying, Mongolian barbecue has little to do with Mongolian cuisine, but it has undoubtedly been embraced by the Chinese. The first Mongolian barbecue restaurants, as we know them today, were opened in Taipei in the early 1950s before spreading back over to the mainland.
A large exhaust fan hangs down from the ceiling, obscuring my view of Gene, who is helping Ernestina distribute the vegetables and meat on the grilling surface. We pluck fried pieces of meat and vegetables from the hot plate, then coat them in a mixture of delicious spices and bread crumbs before popping them into our mouths. The black hot plate is scarcely empty when we are given the move-on notice. More food awaits in another pocket of the city.
We are a jolly, increasingly tipsy group, but Ernestina manages to keep us on schedule, herding us on to our tuk-tuks and onward into the night. The bright lights and cold night air add to the feeling of adventure, and the tour feels like an exciting race or a scavenger hunt where we need to eat as many delicious dishes as possible to win.
The large, deep-fried meat buns we have at Restaurant Three were supposedly a last-minute addition to a great 64-plate banquet for Empress Ci Xi during the Qing dynasty. According to legend, the empress was so taken with the succulent fried buns that she summoned the chef, and asked him what the dish was called. In his panic (he hadn't actually cooked them) he spied a huge, golden door nail. Thus the "Door Nail Meat Bun" was born. As large as a man's fist, my pie has a thick, crunchy outer shell of fried dough filled with tender, slow-cooked beef, scallions and the restaurant's secret mix of spices. Many recipes also call for pork, but this restaurant is halal. It is also apparently one of two left in the capital that make the buns in the labor-intensive traditional style. Steam rushes out as I pry open a hole in the crust with my chopsticks and drizzle brown vinegar inside. The meat is succulent, rich and absolutely delicious.
This restaurant is loud and busy, a ramshackle collection of close-set tables that put diners elbow-to-elbow, but our table becomes momentarily quiet as we are lost in appreciation of our buns. Ernestina passes around small glasses of baiju, a clear and very strong liquor made, in this case, from sorghum, that warms our bellies even further. The baiju flows, and Gene rhapsodises over his second bun. "This is just so good!"
Suddenly, a young, travel-worn American man stumbles into the room. We watch in fascination as he orders food in rudimentary Mandarin and slides into an empty spot. "How on Earth did he find this place?" we all wonder. Between the conversation, the tight corners and the beer, we're all completely disoriented and we haven't seen any other Westerners all night. Even if I knew where I was at this point, I wouldn't tell you. For the Lost Plate tours to work, the restaurants have to stay local, and we have been asked to keep tonight's itinerary to ourselves.
As a former tour guide and current tourist, I appreciate this approach but it may be unnecessary. Although the Chinese visit the rest of the world in enormous numbers, the reverse doesn't appear to be true. It may just be a particularly quiet period, but my fiance and I see only a few dozen other Westerners during our week-long stay. In any case, the restaurants we've seen tonight are happy to have our business, but as far as I can see, not dependent on it.
After the dumplings, we have delicate spring pancakes in a family restaurant that is quiet after the dinner rush.
Dessert is a surprisingly delicious cup of sour fermented milk and sweet red beans at another small establishment, whose walls are papered with handwritten thank-you notes, like thousands of colorful scales. We finish with pints of beer at a trendy, dimly lit, Chinese-owned brewery.
By the end of the night, as Ernestina herds us through the winding unlit alleys to the closest metro station, we're all in high spirits. We've covered a lot of ground - geographically and culturally - and eaten very well indeed.
But if I'm honest, eating delicious food was not really my goal. The fun of tonight has been in the adventure: the lost-then-found feeling of a night spent blasting through the unknown, punctuated with homey, unpretentious meals. Tomorrow, we'll go back to being clueless foreigners in an unfamiliar city, but tonight the curtain was pulled back, and we lived in Beijing, even if it was just for a few hours.
Where to stay
No. 65 Baochao Hutong, Guloudong Road, Dongcheng District, Beijing
A quiet and modern boutique hotel, with rooms in the principal building and separate, private apartments. Situated in the historic Baochao hutong neighbourhood, within walking distance of key attractions such as the Drum Tower and the imperial lakes area. Rooms start at about $146 a night.
Where to eat
Food-and-drink-based tours geared toward small groups in four Chinese cities. We took the Beijing Evening Hutong Tour, which cost $95 per person. Highlights from the tour included doornail meat buns, hot dried noodles and Mongolian barbecue.
What to do
12 Yonghegong Dajie, Beijxinqiao, Dongcheng District
A Tibetan Buddhist monastery, built in 1694. Today, it is both a functioning temple and a popular tourist attraction. Open 9am to 4pm November 1 to March 31; 9am to 4.30pm April 1 to October 31 Admission costs $5.20; $2.50 for children ages 17 and younger, and for full-time undergraduate students.
Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling
46 Houhai Beiyan, ShiChaHai, Xicheng Qu, Beijing Shi
A museum filled with photos and memorabilia in the former home of politician and activist Soong Ching-ling. Open from 9am to 5.30pm April 1 to October 31; 9am to 4 pm November 1 to March 30. Admission costs about $4; about $1 for students.
9 Tiantan Road, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
A multilevel market offering electronics, luxury goods and wholesale pearls. Open 10am to 7.30pm daily. Free.