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  Beijing Scene




Southeast Asian Sojourn


Can't decide what you're craving? Yi Lu House is infused with the aromas of Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and yes, even China.

Hemmed in by a picket fence and covered with wooden shingles, the humble Yi Lu House' Southeast Asian restaurant features dishes from Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. If that weren't enough, it also offers a wide selection of Chinese home-style dishes (jiachang cai). I initially scoffed at this blunderbuss approach to the subtlety of Southeast Asian cuisine, in light of the fact that these culinary choices are available independently in Beijing. Yi Lu House begs the question of when a one-stop restaurant is desirable. When every dish is as fresh, authentic and delicious as the next, that's when.

Located across the street from the Jing Guang Center (just inside the East Third Ring Road), Yi Lu House is unfortunately overshadowed by its neighbor Phrik Thai, the most popular Thai place in town.

But unlike its standing-room-only neighbor, Yi Lu (which roughly translates as "warm house") is considerably more low-key and there's always a free table. Inside, the single oblong room with off-white walls is tastefully decorated with watercolor paintings. Popular Chinese music plays at a tolerably low volume in the background. Despite its unassuming atmosphere, Yi Lu draws an eclectic crowd composed of locals and the international chic. It's a place where you're just as likely to find a Chinese couple on their first date as a cartel of young French professionals loudly kicking off a weekend over beaucoup de satay.

I sift through the menu, which comes with colorful photos of each dish labeled in English and Chinese. It also lists countries of origin, prices and includes a helpful "spice-o-meter" for those prone to tastebud-burns. I suggest skipping the alcoholic beverages, which are limited to your usual beers and Chinese wines, and heading straight for the fresh juices-carrot, coconut, watermelon and lemon, to name but a few. I opt for the lemon, brought promptly by one waitress as another helps take our order. In a very refreshing way, here customer service clearly means more than bringing you the check when you're done. In fact, I was stunned when only after one request for rice, several steaming bowls-full appeared within seconds.

We started our meal with Vietnamese Pork and Beef Spring Rolls. The six rolls comprised of rice paper, lettuce and meat were scrumptious, the skin neither too cloying nor crisp. The pork and beef were flavorful and tender, with a deft hint of crushed peanuts.

After this came an aromatic bowl of Thai Seafood Soup more commonly known by its Thai name Tom Yum Kong. Served in a casserole dish on a hotpot flame, this sunset orange broth of shrimp, mussels and lemon grass was complex in textures and tangy in taste.

The soup was followed by Shrimp and Noodle in an Omelette Pillow, a popular Cantonese dish. The noodles are delicious eaten in small, hot doses. But allow the dish to cool and it starts to congeal, while the remaining egg sheath ultimately becomes a flabby yellow sponge.

For our final course, we indulge in Indonesian Mashed Potato and Beef Patties. These doughnut look-a-likes somehow defy stodginess and are wonderfully fluffy and light on the tongue.

Overseeing the busy kitchen is chef Hou Dezhi. His rich personal background and well-travelled past explains the diverse menu. His parents are both Indonesian and his father-in-law is from Vietnam. During visits there he was introduced to Vietnamese culinary arts. In Hong Kong, Hou studied Cantonese cuisine, and along the way he learned to cook Thai food. Four years ago, he decided to grace Beijing with his skills and soon thereafter began running the show at Yi Lu House.

The only frustration I have about Yi Lu is that faced with all those choices inevitably each time I go I either over-order or leave wishing I had ordered more. The key is to stick to one ethnic cuisine at a time. Or is it to choose only one dish from each country? Or is it to Regardless, since the place is open from ten in themorning until half past three a.m., you'll have plenty of opportunity to experiment.

 

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Real Spring Rolls
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