One of the most popular restaurants in Madrid’s Chinatown in the neighbourhood of Usera, Lao Tou, is an homage to the cuisine of Zhejiang 浙菜, known as Zhècài. Zhejiang is the birth place of the majority of the Chinese community living in Madrid (and Spain).
Not only is Lao Tou popular with the Chinese residents in Madrid, it is also increasingly frequented by curious Madrileños and Chinese tourists visiting the capital.
What makes the restaurant special?
Firstly, the ambience: Lao Tou is boisterous, noisy and chaotic. The combination of Chinese and Spanish having a good time means that noise decibels go through the roof. Added to the animated conversations of the clientele is the clanging and banging made by the to-ing and fro-ing of the waiters as they bring a constant stream of dishes and drinks from the kitchen and bar. And to cap it all, there is the hiss of the wok and the sound of metal hitting metal as the chefs stir the food in the woks with their spatulas.
Then there is the food. Anyone following our blog will know that we love spicy food and our favourite Chinese cuisine comes from Sichuan and Hunan, called Chuāncài 川菜 and Xiāngcài 湘菜 respectively. Zhejiang Cuisine is very different. Rather than using a lot of spice, the aim of Zhejiang cooking is to concentrate on the natural flavours of the ingredients, using only a few spices to enhance the taste. Not much oil is used and the flavours are fresh.
Most of the Chinese community in Madrid come from Qingtian, a town close to the huge, commercial city of Wenzhou in the south of Zhejiang Province. As this area is near the border with Fujian Province, there is a lot of influence from Fujian Cuisine 闽菜, known as Mǐncài. 闽菜. Mǐncài uses a lot of seafood and fish and that is what makes Lao Tou such a great restaurant.
Fresh Spanish seafood, cooked in 浙菜; Zhècài /闽菜; Mǐncài style makes for a real treat. Great fish: seabass and turbot. Wonderful shellfish: clams, razor fish and cockles, to name just a few. For carnivores there is also a huge selection of offal, cold and hot, as well as chicken, duck and pork specialities.
some of the cold dishes we started with.
Wa wa cai 娃娃菜 (Verdura adobada, Spanish translation): a cold dish of pickled cabbage hearts, slightly salty with a tinge of sweetness and a crunchy texture. I’d never had it before and neither had I heard of it, but it’s delicious!
As it’s not on the menu, you have to point to it in the glass cabinet between the bar and the kitchen.
Cold Fish Cake 鱼饼 in slices (Pastel de Pescado): tasty slices of cold fish with garlic and ginger, accompanied by a light soy sauce. It has a great texture too!
Cold dried and roasted fish 黄鱼 (secado de pescado): a really tasty fish that comes off the bone easily.
Pickled Turnip 萝卜条 (nabo encurtido) : similar to the pickled cabbage hearts; crunchy and delicious.
Jellyfish salad 海蛰头 (ensalada de medusa): a generous portion and excellent taste . However, the jellyfish could have been more tender and less chewy. This is usually one of our favourite Chinese cold starters, but this one was a little disappointing.
The other classic cold dishes on the menu include cucumber salad, tofu with black eggs (one hundred, or one thousand year old eggs) and fried shrimps with fresh coriander, among others. For adventurous meat eaters there are duck’s feet 鸭爪, tongues 鸭舌 or a whole head 鸭头 and veal tripe 牛百叶.
The star dish ofLao Tou seems to be steamed fish head (I think it is hake). We haven’t tried it yet. Nearly everybody else in the restaurant was ordering it, but Margie isn’t so keen on fish head, so we went for other options.
The razor fish 蛏子 (navajas) and clams 蛤蜊 (almejas) were fresh and tender and delicately cooked in soy sauce with spring onions and ginger. Most importantly, there was no sand in the razor fish.
However, the cockles 蚶 (berberechos) cooked in Shaoxing wine (Huangjiu 黄酒) were the icing on the cake: fresh, succulent and imbibed with the flavor of the wine.
We also had a huge, mildly spicy pot of fresh seabass鲈鱼 (lubina), which was beautifully presented. The slices of fish were very tender and almost boneless; it could have been a bit spicier for our liking, but – as I said – that’s not really what Zhejiang style’s about. The restaurant does a similar dish with congealed blood.
Don’t miss out on the salt and pepper deep fried prawns 椒盐虾: great texture and great taste!
Finally, there is a good selection of vegetables as well. I’d recommend the sautéed Mange Tout 荷兰豆 and if you are feeling adventurous, give the Chinese Yucca 山药 a chance, or the Jiao Bai (Sun) 茭白(笋), a type of crispy water bamboo.
They also do Okra Qiū kuí 秋葵 Chinese style, in a thick, sticky sauce。
All in all, Lao Tou comes highly recommended. At the weekend you may well have to wait at the bar before you get one of the coveted tables.
Jiaozi or Chinese Dumplings (empanadillas in Spanish) have been popular in Madrid for a number of years, but finding the real McCoy, as you would in the old days in Beijing’s Hutongs, has been more of a struggle.
The opening of the Three Little Pigs Dumpling Restaurant 三只小猪饺子店 (Tres Cerditos in Spanish) has remedied the situation sensationally and especially for vegetarians.
The tiny restaurant does three types of dumplings: meat, prawn and vegetable. The dumpling dough, using wheat flour, is color coded; bluish for seafood, green for vegetarian and orangey for meat. You can have them grilled ( a la plancha) or steamed / boiled (hervido).
The prawn dumplings are simply delicious, while meat eaters rave about the veal or pork dumplings. My only gripe is that the homemade chili sauce is not spicy enough for my spoilt taste buds. However, there is Thai Seracha sauce on hand.
The vegetarian dumplings have an original filling of carrots, onions, leeks and herbs (fresh coriander). Not only is the combination wonderfully eye pleasing, but it is also unbelievably tasty.
Next on the menu are Jian Bing 煎饼 or Chinese Pancakes. These Tianjin style filled pancakes with vegetables only, or with chicken / beef and vegetables are enormous, delicious, cheap and filling. They are also one of my favourite beakfasts when I am in Beijing.
The pancakes are made on a hot metal grill and you can watch the staff preparing them right in front of you. First the dough is spread onto the hot plate and then an egg is added.
The process of making the pancakes looks simple but the number of different ingredients and various stages is quite mind-boggling. I imagine it is a case of practice makes perfect if you want to learn how to do it. However, I’d recommend leaving the task to the experts at the restaurant.
Other dishes: Also on the menu are hand-made noodles. The noodles are cold and come with a scrumptious hoisin style Cantonese sauce and are accompanied with an assortment of vegetables.
Rice flour is used to make the delicate and mouth-watering wantons (meat only). All the wanton wrappers are hand-made in the restaurant.
The kitchen is open for all to see and kept incredible clean. The owner is from Zhejiang 浙江省, but the dumpling makers are from the home of dumplings, Shandong 山东省 province and further north in Dandong 丹东 Liaoning province 辽宁省.
The menu below is in Spanish only. If you are visiting the Museo de Ferrocarril ( the Railway Museum in Madrid), then a visit to the Three Little Pigs Dumpling Restaurant is a must! Just walk long the attractive street Tomás Bretón to get there. There is another Tres Cerditos restaurant in the neighbourhood of Manuel Becerra.
The Barrio (Neighbourhood)
Just off the Atocha station and the magnificent Reina Sofia musem, home to Dali’s Guernica, is the attractive, but little visited neighborhood of Delicias.
Delicias was the first neighborhood where we lived when we came to Madrid. Back then, 1993, it was a traditional working class neighborhood (or barrio castizo) and slightly seedy due to its closeness to Atocha station. Over the years, it has become a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world, but particularly from Latin America.
Madrid is a fabulous city for eating out. For the adventurous, boundless opportunities for exciting dining exist all over the city. However, those who crave spicy food, and I mean really spicy food, are often disappointed by the dearth of options.
Some Peruvian restaurants make brave attempts to keep up their spicy tradition, but most succumb to the whims of their autochthonous diners by watering down the kick. Kitchen 154, a mecca for spicy food in the market of Vallehermoso, does a pretty good job. Cruel, there own chili brand, is pretty fiery .
Wanzhou Kaoyu 万州烤鱼 the Chongqing dish that is hot in Madrid’s Chinatown
A local specialty from Chongqing, China called Wanzhou Grilled Fish (Wanzhou Kaoyu 万州烤鱼 ) is now all the rage in many restaurants in Madrid’s Chinatown neighbourhood of Usera.
What is Wanzhou Grilled Fish / Wanzhou Kaoyu 万州烤鱼
It is a grilled /roasted whole fish covered in a dry dressing of Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies and and served in a big pan filled with a soup like sauce that is not to dissimilar to the stock used in Sichuan hot pots 火锅 (huoguo).
The dish originates from Wanzhou (formerly WanXiang) in Chongqing municipality: It’s now popular all over Mainland China.
The original way of making this dish is to first grill a freshwater fish (Carp 鲤鱼 is popular) over charcoal and then cover it with various condiments that you order from the menu.
Some of these condiments might include lotus roots, potatoes, bamboo shoots, glass noodles, edible fungus, and beansprouts.
In Madrid the fish is usually Sea Bass (Lubina in Spanish)鲈鱼.
Guangzhou Youth Hostel, March 1991, Shamian Island
The rumor going round the hostel was about an American tourist who had fled China in tears after only 2 days into her 1 month trip.
The unfortunate young girl had passed through Guangzhou’s notorious Qingping Market (清平市场) and seen two kittens kept in a tiny cage. The kittens were destined for the tables of Guangzhou’s restaurants. Thinking she would do the kittens a good turn, she negotiated a price for them. Expecting to save the kittens, she hadn’t counted on what would happen next. The store holder took the kittens out of the cage snapped their necks and handed their lifeless bodies over to her. She freaked out and was on the next express train back to Hong Kong.
Whether this is just an urban legend or a true story any visitor to Qingping Market in 1991 could believe it. The variety of animals waiting to be butchered made it feel like a zoo rather than a normal meat market. I remember Monkeys, Pangolins, giant salamanders, snakes, deer, dogs and even owls. The orangey color of dog meat roasting on spits was a common sight as were the restaurants with cages outside full of exotic fauna that made eating out a bit like dinning in a slaughter house.
However, we could never be certain that the cat story was true. Maybe it was just an urban legend.
Location: Sichuan Province, China, in the vicinity of Leshan (2-3 hours)
The ancient town of Luocheng is a gem for those looking for traditional teahouse culture. Luocheng is renowned for its boat architecture: the two sides of its main street narrow down at both ends and widen gradually towards the middle, thus creating the oval shape of a boat.
Straddling the street and forming, as it were, the prow to complete the boat- like appearance of the town, stands a beautifully restored theatre. It is covered in traditional grey tiles and flamboyantly decorated with historic scenes and smiling Buddhas.
However, the absolute highlight of Luocheng is the swell of teahouses lining the main street, sheltered by the overhanging wooden porticos of the buildings. Overlooking this sea of bamboo tables and chairs, occupied by querulous old men in faded Mao jackets, arguing over heated games of cards or Mah-jong, while smoking small stubby pipes carved out of roots, visitors can truly imagine themselves in a time warp.
Joining the regulars over a cup of tea, you can really get an impression of what village life must have been like in the old days. The whole place still oozes authenticity and atmosphere; two elements that are often lacking in many of China’s more popular historical places. In fact, Continue reading “Luocheng: Is This The World’s Best Teahouse Town?”
Located in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, the风骚浙人 fēngsāo zhērén, or sometimes known as Zhejiang Ren Zai Beijing (The Zhejiang People in Beijing Restaurant, 浙江人在北京) is a rather special eatery. From the outside, you’d never guess that the modest façade conceals an ancient courtyard and some of the best Chinese food in Beijing.
Enter through a rather non-descript doorway and find yourself in a traditional Qing dynasty courtyard house with simple, but tasteful, dining rooms and a tree-shaded patio. As the weather was perfect, we chose to eat in the atmospheric patio. The clientele seemed to be well-heeled locals who were expecting nothing but the best.
The waiter was attentive and friendly without being overbearing. He took pride in suggesting the best dishes, but without being pushy.