In defiance of the revolting pollution soup that we must wade through daily this summer to go about our Beijing business, I resist the temptation to write on cool drinks and icy treats, and will instead talk some hot, steamy mutton. I wish I could claim to be contrairian, but this post on long-time favorite King's Mutton Soup was actually spurred by some pleasant dinner conversation on … dissecting eyeballs. Talking about anything I've eaten, even utterly out of context, always fires up some memories. Besides, why dissect eyeballs for science when you can eat them for sustenance? (Ah, yummy. Ah, sarcasm. See picture above for a preview. ) But I run ahead of myself. Mutton is what this Shaanxi canteen is known for, and if the name leaves any doubt, the gamy aroma upon entering this gem of a restaurant makes obvious its specialty. The menu is short and simple, headlined by a dozen mutton specialties. Let's run through some favorites, shall we?
The Good. The roujiamou 肉夹馍 (“meat sandwiched in bun”) here is simply fantastic. Sticklers will point out that it’s actually listed as xiangcuibingjiarou 香脆饼夹肉 (“meat sandwiched in fragrant crispy bun”), but hey, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck… It's the same “Chinese hamburger” model of roujiamou, just punched up a bit. The traditional bun is baked and dense, stuffed with chopped up pork. Here, it's succulent, soft braised mutton sandwiched between a fragrantly flaky and happily oil-fried pastry. The lamb is smartly spiced and chopped up with onions and peppers, and while I love my pork (isn't quite obvious from this blog?), the soft gamey lamb meat paired with the greasy bing just elevates this to a new level.
And the namesake mutton soup? It's the most popular dish here. “King's mutton soup” (zibuyangtang) is a fragrant mutton broth heavily flavored with cilantro and leeks to cut the gamy flavor of lamb. The soup is served on top of rice noodles with plenty of tender sliced mutton. For lovers of organ meats (not me, but I respect your wishes to go hog wild), there
is the version with lamb innards—liver and tripe among other unidentified bits (yangzatang).
The Ugly. Now we come to the section of our program that brought me back to science class. Aside from these favorites, other mutton offerings are worth a try, even if they look rather revolting. The braised lamb eyeball (jiangxiangyangyan) is indeed repulsive, the interior retina an inky black, the nerve cord protruding, the rings of muscle visible. At first sight, I was haunted by visions of 8th grade biology and the cow eyeball I hacked into, how slippery the cornea was, how the viscous jelly squirted out and smacked me in the face. Alright, bad flashbacks aside, I managed a bite anyways. As it turns out, eyeballs can be tender and flavorful – in fact, those who enjoy the texture of braised octopus would enjoy this dish. Served cold, tossed with some oil and vinegar, chilies dried and fresh and an enormous handful of cilantro. All that being said though, two wedges of eyeball was enough.
The cold mutton face (qiaobanyangmian) is slices of mutton headcheese sliced thin and like eyeball, tossed with chili and vinegar, topped with peppers and cilantro. Headcheese, for the curious, is a meat jello made from boiling the head until the meat falls off and mixes with natural gelatin from the bones, traditionally, brains, ears, etc., are all tossed into the pan as well. After a long boil, this mess of fleshy bits and pieces is left to cool and set. Sure, some bits were recognizably chunks of face meat, but scattered in the jelly were other unidentifiable organ and cartilage bits. If you can get over the rather unappetizing sight of a slice of Jell-O peppered with mysterious head chunks, it's actually quite pleasing to eat as a cold cut – a bit of squish from gelatin, chew from meat, crunch from… god knows what.
The Bad. Alright, so nothing is really bad at King’s Mutton (well, to be fair, nothing I've ever ordered. Perhaps the veggie dishes are a gag-reflex-inducing mess, but I highly doubt it. Besides, why would you order anything but the mutton?). So this section is a tease. But I couldn’t resist the title.
King’s Mutton Soup 202 Guloudong Dajie, Dongcheng district (64056488) 东城区鼓楼东大街202号. 10:30am-10:30pm daily.