Lao Fangzi Restaurant 一颗印
By 6.00 o’clock the restaurant is packed and queues are beginning to line up in the waiting area. A palpable sense of expectation hovers in the air as customers mull over the huge menu, occasionally lifting their heads to glance at their fellow diners and nodding in approval as a dish is selected. The waiters stand around patiently, sometimes suggesting dishes to speed the indecisive along. As orders are taken to the kitchen, the carriers -whose job it is only to carry food to the tables on large trays – begin scurrying backwards and forwards between kitchen and dining area, delivering large plates of unfamiliar, yet delicious looking food. A veritable army of waiting staff in traditional uniforms then take the dishes from the trays and serve them to the suitably impressed diners. The noise level begins to rise as beer bottles are opened, or Chinese rice wine is tossed down gulping throats to the shouts of Ganbei/ Cheers!
This is Lao Fangzi in central Kunming where food doesn’t come much better and the ambience puts the icing on the cake. One of the few – maybe the last- remaining genuine old houses in central Kunming, Lao Fangzi (the Old House) is one of the city’s best dining spots. How it has escaped the guide books is a mystery.
The 150-year-old building is an old grey stone, two- storey court- yard residence of the type known locally as ‘stamp houses’, due to their square shape. Once, this type of building was the embodiment of much of the vernacular architecture of central Kunming. Today, Lao Fangzi stands alone under the shadow of towering neon- lit skyscrapers, surrounded by the broken and dilapidated remains of old Kunming; an eloquent symbol of what could have been preserved if speculation and reckless urban planning hadn’t been allowed to prevail over conservation and restoration.
On the ground floor, diners either eat in the open space of the central patio, or under the covered areas surrounding it. Upstairs, couples can eat on small tables overlooking the patio, while bigger groups are ushered into large, wooden rooms with huge round tables. For people watching and soaking up the ambience, the side areas are obviously the best. The red lanterns, fantastic smells, and general hubbub of contented customers lend the finishing touches.
The enormous menu comes with pictures to orientate the non-mandarin speaker. Fish, meat and mushrooms are the specialities, but you could probably come every day for several weeks and still eat something different. You can tell just how fresh the fish is by the number of times the cooks have to come out of the kitchen to catch one escaping from the tanks.
Our favourite dishes include thinly sliced, dry roasted squid which has to be dipped in spicy salt, fried rice- noodle squares (a local favourite), spicy fish served on a bed of tofu slices, cold buckwheat noodles, prawns cooked in salt, and any type of mushrooms they have in season.
A meal with four or five dishes and beer will cost around 200 to 250 Yuan, depending on how much alcohol is drunk and on whether you choose the special mushrooms.
Be careful when ordering those mushrooms; price is usually determined by weight and season. Some, like the ones called Ganba (tiny, bat-eared mushrooms that are almost completely black), can easily reach 200 Yuan for a dish.
If, like us, you have a craving for special mushrooms and really want to pig out on them, you might do well to take a trip to the small village of Heijing, some 3 hours from Kunming, where restaurants specialising in mushrooms serve them up at a fraction of the price (For more info, consult our future article on Heijing)。
The restaurant is easy to find; it is in the very heart of downtown Kunming, near the flower market. From Dongfeng Xi Lu (almost opposite Shuncheng, once the old Muslim neighbourhood, but now a pedestrian shopping area) you need to dive down a small street, pass a large church, after which you’ll see the unmistakeable doorway.
Lao Fangzi (Old House Restaurant) 一颗印
18-19 Jixiang Xiang, Dongfeng Xi Lu, Kunming, China