“You hungry?” I asked my girlfriend Katie. It was Sunday afternoon, and I was starving.
“I could eat,” she said. “What did you have in mind?”
“Let's find a cheap local place. I'm sick of eating pizza and burgers.” Three weeks prior, we had moved from the US to a suburb of Beijing, China. Katie's new co-workers had introduced us to several Western restaurants. Their food was good, but expensive. I wanted to find a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant, somewhere I could stop for a quick meal whenever I was hungry.
An idea popped into my head. “Let's get on bus twenty-six, see where it takes us.” There were no maps at the bus stops, and the routes were only printed in Chinese characters, which we couldn't read. The best way to figure out where the buses went was simply to hop aboard.
We walked to the bus stop, and bus 26 quickly arrived. It took us a few miles west, then stopped. Our driver said something in Mandarin that we didn't understand, and the other passengers stood up.
“Looks like this is the end of the line,” I said. We got off, along with everyone else, and the bus did a u-turn and headed back toward our neighborhood.
We were on a dusty road, near a major highway, and few people were walking around. Nevertheless, there were several small shops on the opposite side of the road. We ran across, dodging traffic, and peered into the windows. We found a restaurant and walked inside. The place was empty.
We took a seat and looked at the wall, where the menu, written entirely in Chinese characters, was posted. I had been in this situation once before. That time, I had pointed at a random item, and it had turned out to be a delicious noodle dish. But we wouldn't need to employ the “point-and-pray” technique this time: hanging on the wall next to the menu were four blurry, pixelated photographs of food.
The waitress came up to us and lingered while we decided what to order.
“That one looks good,” I said encouragingly, pointing at a photo of a plate of noodles and vegetables.
“No way,” Katie said. “I think those are chicken feet.” She pointed at the side of the bowl.
The photo was of such low quality, I hadn't noticed. I squinted and said, “Maybe they're pitchfork-shaped noodles. With claws.”
“I don't think so. Let's get something else.” Katie had been battling a stomach bug for the past few days. Chicken feet are a delicacy in China and we would try them eventually, but today we would have to opt for something bland.
While we were talking, two teenaged boys came in, sat down and got the waitress's attention. They quickly placed their order and the waitress went into the kitchen.
“All right, let's try that one,” I said. The photo I was looking at was of a bowl of soup. Something resembling chunks of meat were floating in it.
“Fine, but we should try this beef dish, too.”
When the waitress returned, we ordered both dishes and two bottles of beer. A few minutes later, the waitress brought our beers and a plate of cold roast beef, covered in cilantro. The portion was small, but delicious. We toasted our luck in finding such a delectable dish, in a country where we couldn't speak – or even read – the language. We were ready for more.
The soup came next. It contained several cloves of garlic and a few green beans, but it was mostly filled with shriveled lumps of...something.
“Are those mushrooms?” Katie asked.
“I don't think so.” The soup had a distinct odor that I couldn't quite place. I grabbed a “mushroom” with my chopsticks and put it into my mouth. It didn't have much flavor, but its chewy texture made me want to spit it out. I tried, unsuccessfully, to tear the “mushroom” with my teeth. I took a swig of beer and swallowed it whole.
“Well? What is it?”
Finally I recalled eating menudo in Mexico, many years before. “Cow guts,” I said, matter-of-factly.
Katie pinched a clove of garlic in her chopsticks and ate it. Then she dug around the guts and came up with a green been. She didn't say anything about the elephant in the room.
The waitress brought out two bowls of noodles for the teenagers. I didn't see anything resembling intestines in their meals. I wondered why we hadn't simply asked for the same thing they were having. Maybe we weren't so travel-savvy, after all.
Returning to the task at hand, I popped an intestinal chunk into my mouth. I figured this dish was a delicacy in China and I didn't want to offend the wait staff. But there were at least thirty pieces left and I didn't think I could take much more. I took a big gulp of beer and forced the second piece down my throat. If I kept this up, soon there would be an undigested pile of guts flowing through my guts. “Aren't you going to try some?” I asked.
“I don't think so.”
“Come on, you have to help me. Eat your guts.”
Katie cringed. “All right, I'll try one.” She tentatively grabbed a piece and started chewing.
Our waitress sat at the table behind Katie and played with her cellphone.
I took out my phone and looked up the Chinese character for “intestine.” Sure enough, it matched one of the characters on the soup photo. Then I turned my attention to the menu. Most of the dishes cost 10-12 yuan. Now I saw that our tiny roast beef dish cost 40 yuan. Our intestine soup was 38 yuan.
The teenagers stood up and one of them threw a twenty-yuan note on the table. They snickered at the sight of Katie, grimacing as she chewed, and left.
Katie swallowed the rubbery chunk, then followed it with a long draught of beer. “Where's a stray dog when you need one?” she asked.
“Eat your guts,” I said.
“I can't handle more.”
“Look, we just ordered the two most expensive items on the menu. Let's get our money's worth.”
“That figures. We should've known they would only take photos of their specialties.”
I chewed another piece of intestine and tried to imagine it was a juicy steak. It didn't work. I was done.
Katie asked the waitress for the bill. Then she said to me, “Look on the bright side. You could write about this in your blog. We wouldn't have had this experience if we had ordered pizza.”
Over the past few days, she had encouraged me to blog about everything we had done. Apparently I hadn't been updating my website enough for her taste. This time, she was right. No guts, no story.