Huguosi Street is one of Beijing’s most famous snack streets and it’s definitely the place need to go to if you try authentic Beijing food. In fact, the brand and restaurant chain Huguosi xiaochi has become synonymous with traditional Beijing snacks and breakfast. But as famous as it may be, unlike Chengdu xiaochi or Hangzhou xiaochi, Huguosi still doesn’t ring any bell to most of the laowai ears, even in Beijing. Let’s change that, shall we?
Huguosi Street is located at the center of Beijing close to Houhai Park, right next to the temple it is named after – 护国寺 (hù guó sì). The temple was built in the time of the Yuan Dynasty and its marvelous fairs (庙会) started the proud tradition of Huguosi snacks and little eateries.
There are a lot of restaurants along the street, but the most important one is of course Huguosi xiaochi. As a matter of fact there are two Huguosi restaurants in the street, which are known as the old one and the new one. The new one has two floors and can accommodate more people. Here’s a look inside the new one:
Huguosi Xiao isn’t your typical xiaochi restaurant. If anything, it’s more like a Chinese version of a coffee-shop-slash-bakery. You have to stand in line to order and the menu consists mostly of sweet pastries and Chinese breakfast snacks, porridge and tea. Another thing worth noting is that it’s halal, so you won’t find any pork on the menu, just beef, lamb, duck and chicken. While there are some common xiaochi and staple dishes on the menu, like rice, noodles and baozi, huguosi’s main attraction is the line of classic Beijing snacks.
艾窝窝 (ài wō wō) is a steamed rice cake with sweet filling (sugar, sesame, nuts and the occasional fruit bits). This used to be a late spring early autumn snack but now it’s available all year round. It has one of the cutest names ever because saying it is very similar to saying love me me!
驴打滚 (lǘ dǎ gǔnr) is a glutinous rice roll with red bean and / or brown sugar paste. If aiwowo has the cutest name, this one definitely has a very interesting one because it literally means ‘donkey rolls over’.
As the story goes, one day the Empress Dowager Cixi asked her chef for a new snack. After a lot of thinking he came up with these rolls but just as he finished making them a young boy named 小驴 (little donkey) came and accidentally drop them into a bowl of soybean flour. There was no time to make new ones and so the chef served the rolls covered in flour. When he was asked for the name of this snack he improvised and said rolling donkey. Whether this is true or not, rolling the rolls in soybean flour is part of the recipe and how the snack got its name.
A quick joke before I tell you the English name of this snack:
Three Chinese men wanted to immigrate to the US. The immigration officer asked if they want to change their names into something that sounds more American. Chu changed his name to Chuck; Bu changed his name to Buck. The third guy – Fu, well…he decided to go back to China.
If these three snacks were the men in that joke, 豌豆黄 (wān dòu huáng) would definitely be Fu. It’s is a yellow cake made of peas and it is sometimes referred to in English as Pea Cake. This name doesn’t sound very inviting, especially if you consider the fact it’s yellow and looks like urinal cake. Regardless of how you call it is quite delicious. It is customary to eat it on the third day of the third month in Chinese lunar calendar.
Other than these three snacks, you will also find many other delicious sweet pastries, various type of congee, meat dishes and more. Here’s a little visual taste.
Huguosi snacks are not for everyone, but if you live in Beijing you should try it at least once, because it’s one of the very few places that still preserve authentic Beijing flavor. If you are looking for total immersion in Beijing culture this would be a good place to start. Plus, you will also get your fair share of Beijing Dialect practice.
The Beverage Challenge
Huguosi Xiaochi doesn’t offer a great deal of beverages, but while you’re there you might want to try 豆汁 (dòu zhī) – fermented mung beans (I wanna say) juice, and 面茶 (miàn chá) – millet (let’s say) tea topped with majiang. Both will prove to be a new kind of challenge for your tastes buds. Millet tea look like this:
You can see how the bean juice looks like in my class group photo in the gallery above.
Directions and Suggested Route
Huguosi Street is located inside the second ring road of Beijing, west of Houhai Park. The easiest way to get there is to take subway line 4 or line 6 and get off at Ping’anli station exit B and walk a bit north until you see this building:
That is the street begins. If you follow the street and keep going east you will get to Mei Lanfang old courtyard at the eastern end of the street and if you walk even further you will end up in Houhai Park.
View Huguosi Snack Street in a larger map
What I suggest is to have a real meal in one of the rest restaurant on the street (Zhajiangmian would make a fine choice) and then have Huguosi xiaochi for dessert. You could also get the snacks to go and eat them at Houhai Park, preferably on a boat in the middle of the lake.
Note that if you’re approaching Houhai Park from the other side there’s another Huguosi Xiaochi restaurant over there too. Also, if you keep your eyes open while walking around the city, you will probably spot some huguosi hole in the walls like this one.
There’s isn’t a lot of English reading material about Huguosi online. Not even in Wikipedia. Most of the information I wrote here I translated from Baidu. Some of the few useful articles I found were those of Bites of Beijing and Beijing Haochi – both excellent blogs which sadly are not updated anymore. China-Memo also wrote a three-piece about the street (par1, part 2, part 3) with lots of photos. You might also want to take a look at this article from The World of Chinese. Though it’s about Chinese breakfast in general, it mentions many of what you’ll find on the menu of Huguosi Restaurants.
There are also a couple of videos about Huguosi Snacks. The first clip is this one from BON TV China which is very well made and in it you’ll see much of all the snacks mentioned in this article:
The second one is this clip which is slightly less well made and it doesn’t show much, but still priceless in its own way. :
To be honest I can’t decide which one I like better.