If you’ve been reading Adventures Around Asia for a while, you’ll know I have an absolute obsession with Chinese food, particularly the spicy Sichuan variety. I’m literally heading to Beijing for a week and the only thing I have planned is what restaurants I’m going to eat at. Yeah… I’m obsessed.
Now if there’s one restaurant I ALWAYS mention on this site and social media, it’s my all-time favorite hole-in-the-wall gem: Zhang Mama. This restaurant is so good it’s literally painful for me to talk or even think about it now that I don’t live in Beijing.
Zhang Mama is dirty and crowded, the staff are kind of rude (with a few exceptions) and the menu is only in Chinese characters. But WOW is the food here good. There’s a reason why you’ll need to wait an hour for a table most evenings.
Is it a bit controversial to say that Zhang Mama is the best restaurant in Beijing, especially when it serves Sichuan food? Probably. But Zhang Mama is MY all-time favorite restaurant in Beijing (actually, it’s my favorite restaurant in the world), so if you love spicy food, you definitely shouldn’t miss it.
What to Expect at Zhang Mama
Zhang Mama is super popular with both locals and in-the-know expats. This tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant down a random hutong street in Beijing’s Andingmen neighborhood (Fun Fact: my old apartment is on this hutong street!), Zhang Mama only stands out due to the insane amount of people waiting outside for a table.
Since the restaurant is tiny, Zhang Mama has set up little stools along the edge of the hutong street for the crowds that eagerly wait over an hour to share a table with strangers. Because of this, I highly recommend avoiding Zhang Mama on the weekends and coming at off-peak times like 2 pm for lunch or 8 pm for dinner. I mean, you could also go at 10 am or 10 pm. They’re open and I won’t judge.
Inside you’ll find the tiny restaurant crammed with tables and waiters squeezing through the limited walking space delivering steaming dishes or holding giant trays of rice bowls.
When you dine at Zhang Mama, expect a menu with no pictures or English, and know that you’ll have to hand-write your order in Chinese characters on a notepad for the waiter. Also, be aware that you’ll have to ask for rice approximately 5 times before they bring it to you.
That said, there is a reason why Zhang Mama is my absolute favorite restaurant in the whole world. The food is FANTASTIC and super cheap.
What to Eat at Zhang Mama
The Famous Boboji – ???
Zhang Mama’s most famous dish is boboji, a super spicy hot pot style broth served in a bowl (sort of like malatang). You’ll then head back to the refrigerator to select ingredients on skewer sticks like tofu, veggies, meat, and quail eggs, to place in your spicy broth. Pretty much everyone who comes to Zhang Mama orders boboji. However, be aware that this is VERY SPICY and may pretty much destroy your insides.
Price: 5 RMB ($1 USD) per bowl and at least 1 RMB per skewer
Mala Liangfen – ????
Liangfen, otherwise known as mungbean jelly (umm what?) is one of my absolute favorite random China finds. This jelly-like noodle is actually incredible. I eat it as a flat noodle with cucumber, garlic, and vinegar in my old neighborhood jaunt we fondly named “Smokey Joes” (because of the cigarette smoke) or I slurp down super spicy rectangular cubes at Zhang Mama.
The first time my roommate from Sichuan ordered liangfen, I was somewhat put off by the clear jelly-like consistency. But after one bite I was OBSESSED and I literally will not go to Zhang Mama without ordering this dish.
I prefer my liangfen ‘mala‘ (aka numb spicy) with fresh chili peppers on top. This dish will make you cry both tears of joy and pain, so be sure to have a bowl of white rice on hand. That said, there are plenty of other flavors to choose from, but to be honest, I never sat down and translated all the characters on the menu to figure it out. My bad!
Price will be updated when I visit again in a few weeks!
Huiguorou – ???
Huiguorou, or “twice cooked pork” is a staple at pretty much any Sichuan restaurant, or basic generic “Chinese food” restaurant in China. Typically huiguorou is a bit oily and the pork is at least 2/3 fat. When it comes to huiguorou, I’m usually not the first to order it. However, at Zhang Mama throw all your preconceived notions out the window because this dish is AMAZING.
Huiguorou at Zhang Mama is still a little oily, but it feels much fresher than any other place I’ve ever had it. The dish itself is HUGE with fresh pieces of pork that are at least 3/4 meat (and not just fat). There are even little pita chips at the bottom of the bowl to soak up the extra oil.
If you’re hungry and looking for something really tasty that won’t absolutely kill your mouth, huiguorou is the way to go. Just be aware that because it’s Zhang Mama, the chef likes to throw a little mala in there to give it some kick.
Price: 28 RMB ($4.50 USD)
Mapodofu – ????
Soft spicy tofu, otherwise known as mapodofu, is a must-order staple at Zhang Mama. The tofu here is a bit more firm than most mapodofu dishes I’ve had elsewhere (like you can actually pick it up with chopsticks and it won’t fall apart), and the chef often sprinkles freshly ground Sichuan peppercorn on top to give it a numbing kick.
I won’t say this mapodofu is as good as Chen’s Mapo Tofu in Chengdu, but it’s close, and that’s what counts.
Price will be updated when I visit again in a few weeks!
Suanrong Xilanhua ? ?????
When visiting Zhangmama it’s definitely necessary to order one non-spicy vegetable dish to save your insides from the insanity that is pretty much every dish there. My go-to is suanrong xilanhua or basically garlic broccoli. It’s delicious, not-spicy (save for the few times the chef goes crazy and sprinkles some Sichuan peppercorns on it), and will save your stomach from the insane amount of spice and oil that you’ll be consuming.
Price: 12 RMB ($2 USD)
How to Eat at Zhang Mama Without Speaking Chinese
To be honest, you’re probably going to want someone who speaks Chinese to come with you, but if that’s not an option for you, I’ve put together a little guide that should help.
#1 Take a Number
When you arrive at Zhang Mama, if there appears to be any sort of wait for a table, you’ll need to walk inside and take one of the paper numbers from next to the door. They should be hanging to the left side of the door inside. If it’s not too cold, stand/sit outside and wait for them to call your number.
Obviously, the staff will be shouting the numbers in Chinese, so if they shout a number more than once and no one seems to go up, just show them the number. They’ll then be aware they have foreign patrons that don’t speak Chinese and will check in with you in the future by grabbing your arm to look at the number. Just be aware that they might forget about you, so if no one goes up the claim the number called, it’s a good time to check in and make sure that’s not you!
You can also always befriend someone waiting next to you and ask them to help you if your number is called. If they don’t speak English just point at your number and they should kind of understand what you’re asking.
Read Next: How to Get Around China Without Speaking Chinese
#2 Get Help Ordering
Once it’s your turn, the waitress should seat you at a table (no, you don’t get a choice). Remember that Zhang Mama is crowded, so if there’s only two of you, you’ll most definitely be sharing a table with two other strangers. While this might feel intrusive, this actually will work in your favor.
Here at Zhang Mama, the waitstaff is way too busy to take your order. They’ll hand you a menu and a notepad and pen, and you’re expected to take your own order. Obviously, if you don’t write Chinese characters, this can be pretty much impossible.
However, if you’ve got the characters saved on your phone, you can ask your neighbor friends to write it for you! I actually had people do this for me the first few times I went until I realized it was way more efficient to just copy and paste the characters of the dishes I liked into my phone and copy them from there.
Here’s a quick list of favorites you can copy and paste or screenshot:
- ??? – boboji (spicy soup with skewers)
- ???? – mala liangfen (spicy mung bean jelly)
- ??? – huiguorou (twice cooked pork)
- ???? – mapuodofu (spicy tofu)
- ????? – suanrong xilanhua (garlic broccoli)
- ???? – gongbaojiding (kungpao chicken)
- ????? – Zhang Mama xiaochao (signature dish, stir fry chicken with spicy peppers)
- ???? – suanrong laorou (lean pork with garlic and vegetables – not spicy)
- ??? – dandan mian (spicy noodles with pork)
- ??? – zhongshuijiao (dumplings)
- ?? – bing fen (jelly desert to cool down the spice)
- ?? – mifan (small bowl of white rice)
Zhang Mama patrons tend to be super nice and will pretty much always be happy to help you write your order down. Some will even speak English and might recommend a dish or two!
At Zhang Mama, I always order dishes equal to the number of people +1. So if there are two people, I recommend getting 3 dishes for the table and a bowl of rice each. If there are 5 people I get 6 dishes and rice. If you’re extra hungry and don’t plan on getting huiguorou, you can get away with adding +2 dishes to the number of people since many of the other dishes can be small.
#3 Grab Your Drinks and Skewers
Once you’ve finished ordering, it’s time to grab anything else you might want! I highly recommend getting something to drink, whether it’s the orange soda or the weird sesame peanut drink that’s a life-saver for calming a spicy mouth. Of course, there’s always water, beer, and all that good stuff.
If you ordered boboji you’ll also want to head to the refrigerator to grab your skewers. Grab as many as you want, and remember you can always go back and get more. You are charged 1 RMB per veggie skewer (basically pennies) and a little bit more for meat.
Read Next: 20 Foods You Need to Try in Beijing!
Even Chris loves Zhang Mama!
#4 Enjoy and Pay Your Bill!
Once you’ve finished your spicy meal, the waitstaff should quickly come and collect your bill. They’ll tally your order, check for drinks and rice bowls, and show you the final bill on a calculator.
As of a year ago, Zhang Mama was a cash-only establishment and did not accept debit/credit cards or Wechat/Alipay. However, I will be heading back to Beijing this April 2019 and I’ll double check to see if anything has changed.
#5 Grab a Jarred Yogurt
Trust me, your stomach will probably not be happy after all that spice. Once you finish your meal at Zhang Mama, I highly recommend wandering a little further down the hutong until you hit a convenience store. Here you’ll want to grab one of Beijing’s famous jarred honey yogurts to line your stomach.
If you plan on sticking around, grab a glass jar and slurp your yogurt outside the shop. However, if you’re in a hurry you can always get one to go in a plastic jar. Personally, I much prefer mine in glass so I just drink it outside the shop so I can return the jar to the owner.
Where is Zhang Mama?
Have I convinced you now? If so, Zhang Mama is actually very easy to find.
The original Zhang Mama is located on Fensiting Hutong, just off Andingmen Nei Dajie (Andingmen Inner Road). You can either take a taxi or didi straight to the opening of Fensiting Hutong, or you can get off at the Andingmen Nei subway stop and walk from there. Once you turn down Fensiting hutong, the restaurant is almost immediately there on your right.
- Address: 4 Fensiting Hutong, Dongcheng district/ ?????4?
- Open daily 10 am – 11 pm
Due to customer demand, Zhang Mama has actually opened a second hutong location will a little more space. I can’t personally vouch for it as I’ve never been there, but LumDimSum seems to think it’s great!
- Address: 76 Jiaodaokou Nan Dajie, Dongcheng district/ ?????????76?
- Open daily 10:30 am – 11 pm
Not sure why you’d want to have Zhang Mama at 10 am, but I guess they serve dumplings and noodles so…?
What Do You Think?
Are you as obsessed with Zhang Mama as I am? Any good dishes I’ve left out? Do you have a favorite restaurant in Beijing you’d like me to try while I’m there this April? Be sure to leave a comment below!