skewers, aka chuanr, Lap Pi BBQ

I’d like to thank whoever subscribed me to News China, a glossy magazine whose title pretty much says it all. There’s lots to read in the August issue, including a report on extremist violence in the far-western province of Xinjiang, a lovely travelogue on the tea harvest in Zhejiang province, and a spirited defense of Chinese Muslim barbecue, or chuanr, in Beijing, where authorities have scapegoated vendors of live-coal-charred lamb skewers, blaming them for the city’s awful pollution.

Chuanr basically means “meat threaded on a skewer,” and its pictogram, 串, looks like a couple of weenies stuck on a stick. It came from the west to cities like Beijing and Harbin via Chinese Muslims, a minority that’s often viewed, at least by the government, with suspicion. That doesn’t seem to diminish its popularity on late summer nights, when skewers of cumin-and-chile-basted lamb, beef, and chicken wings sizzle and spit over live coals, sending an olfactory signal that beckons the soused and stumbling to refuel.

fish, mantou, Lao Pi BBQ

That’s a scene not likely to be replicated here, where our government harasses and suppresses what few real street food vendors do exist, and ground out the possibility of a thriving food truck scene before it even got started. But at least a reasonable facsimile of a Chinese chuanr stand exists in the subterranean food court under Chinatown’s Richland Center, which is where, since early spring, the folks behind Lao Pi BBQ have been grilling a dozen different skewers over a little coal grill in the tiny vestibule next to the great Snack Planet. The Trib‘s Kevin Pang translated the short menu a while back, and Lao Pi’s proprietors have hung it up behind the register, making it easy to put together a varied assortment, ideal for a small snack or concentrated binge. The signature chuanr here is the lamb skewer, composed of earthy scraps of flesh that are best complemented by the chile, cumin, and sesame seed seasoning. That triumvirate of spices appears on all the skewers, most effectively on the whole grilled pomfret—the fish’s crispy skin is scored, allowing the spices to penetrate the flaky white flesh. Whole head-on shrimp take on a smoky sweetness, garlic cloves basted with chile sauce are charred in the skin until soft and mellow, and the seasoning makes the time it takes to break down the chewy chicken hearts feel like no time at all.

Grillin. Chillin. Lao Pi BBQ
  • Mike Sula
  • Grillin’, chillin’ at Lao Pi BBQ

Two things that don’t quite take to this treatment well are the whole American hot dog or the chewy, tough tofu skins wrapped around bits of pungent cilantro and green onion. The pomfret is the most expensive item on the menu, at an entirely justifiable $3, while the rest of the chuanr, including beef short rib and tendon, quail, lamb kidneys, and soft mantou buns cost between $1.50 and $2, which should make you feel like you’re the one on the wrong side of the law.

Lao Pi BBQ

Lao Pi BBQ, beneath the Richland Center, 2002 S. Wentworth