Took a stroll down Nanluoguxiang with the family this past weekend and amidst the incessant clamor of honking cars*, we happened upon a long, snaking line of young Beijing hipsters, students and hutong punters.
It was around high noon Saturday, and the queue was baking in the bright sunshine waiting to squeeze into the small confines of the Wenyu Cheese Shop (文宇奶酪店, 49 Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District).
Every so often, a passer-by would stop and ask someone in the queue what the commotion was all about, or exclaim out loud to their companions “You ne me hao chi ma?” (“有那么好吃吗?” “Is it really that good?”).
The cheese shop has been around for ages. I remember it from when I lived in Ju’Er Hutong eight years ago – before the entire area had been given its “lao Beijing” makeover. Back then it was just like any other store in the area – entirely non-descript. I remember stopping in there one day for a try and leaving with a “meh” impression.
But oh how times change – the cheese shop is now one of the biggest draws in Nanluoguxiang, and judging from the long lines, it’s hard not to ponder the same thing as all those passers-by – is it really that good?
My wife braved her way through the queue and emerged some twenty minutes later with an armful of plastic cups and containers filled with an assortment of “dairy delights”: a plastic tray with two red bean filled cheese rolls, a container of a cottage-cheese like curd topped with more red beans, a cup of almond jello (xingren dofu) and another cup of what is best described as “sweet cheese water” runoff (“It was free,” my wife informed me).
Everything was sweet. Sickeningly sweet. Our baby took a half bite of the cottage cheese/red bean concoction, made a face (she usually grabs at exotic new foods like there’s no tomorrow) and promptly regurgitated the mash. It was, to be exact , “meh” – exactly as I remember it from eight years ago.
So what of all the hype? Maybe it’s due to the “Quanjude effect” – a store gets deemed a “time-honored brand” (laozihao, 老字号) and the crowds gather, regardless of the quality of the food. Or, perhaps, many in the crowd is relatively new to cheese and have yet to indulge in the tastes of Tetes des Moines and Epoisses. Or could it be that my family’s taste buds are simply out of step? Whatever the case, why this shop continues to draw the crowds remains a mystery to me.
* Note to Dongcheng District: Do the words “pedestrians-only” mean anything to you?