Tacos, burritos, nachos … all tasty treats, without question. But these familiar dishes are only a small corner of the extravaganza which is true Mexican cuisine. Unfortunately, here in Beijing, it’s easy to feel limited in our options and understanding of Mexico’s food culture, and what it can really be.
Well, no more. Enter Pebbles Courtyard.
Pebbles is an innovative restaurant nestled in Wudaoying Hutong, Dongcheng District, which delves into the farther reaches of Mexican cuisine, boldly bringing less familiar dishes and flavors to the plates of Beijingers. During our visit, we had the pleasure of speaking with Ray Heng, one half of the husband-and-wife duo who own and run the whole operation.
Ray Heng is both a genuine, cool guy and a real culinary aficionado. He’s no regular Beijing restaurant owner—having trained under his friend and mentor, celebrity chef Rick Bayless, the depth of his knowledge of and love for Mexican cuisine was palpable both in our conversation and in the food we tasted.
Our first dish, the Shrimp Cocktail appetizer (RMB 68), was delightfully refreshing. Having walked through the midsummer Beijing heat to get to the restaurant, the coolness of the shrimp, tomatoes, and avocado was immensely satisfying. A just-right hint of saltiness, too, was capped off perfectly with the crunch of the crackers which were paired with the dish.
Soon after, the staff brought out our second appetizer, the Empanadas de Queso (RMB 68). Before the dish got close enough for even the aroma to reach us, my eyes feasted on the colors on the plate. The perfect golden brown of the dumpling-shaped pastry sat gently on a bed of carrot and sweet potato purée and was garnished with flower petals. I would later learn from Ray that the principle of this “carrotine” purée is that its ingredients vary by season, but the end product would always hold this vibrant and tasty color.
Cutting into the empanadas, we discovered a generous stuffing of melted cheese in each. On my first bite, I was taken aback by the way that the savory flakiness of the crust and the rich fluffiness of the cheese inside complemented one another—a superb blend of textures. Even just the purée itself probably could have made for a splendid appetizer. The creaminess of the mashed carrot and sweet potato was seasoned just right—absolutely not too salty, but just enough kick to maintain an amazing flavor.
Each component of every dish is handmade. Nothing that a customer pays for comes out of a freezer or a bag. As he walked us through the thought processes behind his food, I was amazed by the sheer attention to even the smallest details that is responsible for making each dish just right. It’s not just about flavors, Ray says. It’s also about the texture, and believe or not, even the colors (as the empanadas demonstrate) that really make each dish hit their full potential.
The crackers paired with shrimp cocktail, for instance, were chosen in the stead of a perhaps more familiar stack of chips for its milder flavor, which allows for the other ingredients to shine.
Ray very well may have put more consideration into that single dish than I did for my semester final English paper…
A few moments later, our main dish was served. Again, the aesthetic quality of our food was on point. The presentation of the Street Tacos Platter (RMB 98) was rustic and beautiful. Along with the five tacos (chorizo con papa, carnitas, barbacoa, lengua, and tinga-de-pollo), we were presented with a range of eight different styles of salsa to try. If you think that’s impressive, remember that their entire menu offers over 30 different salsas!
The taco I tried—the barbacoa—was incredible. It was unlike any taco I’d had before. While the slow-cooked beef, coated in its smoky savory sauce, boasted a formidable flavor, it was the homemade tortilla that especially stood out. It had a rich and crumbly quality you simply would never be able to experience from its store-bought counterparts.
Ray explained that it is the simplicity of the ingredients that gives the tortilla its outstanding texture. The cornflour gives it a distinct aroma, while the pork lard incorporated into the recipe gives it its crumbly, rich texture that almost melts in the mouth.
The innovation behind the re-imagined Pebbles Courtyard brings a fresh slice of Mexican cuisine to the plates of Beijingers. Its unique offerings introduce the city to a genuine take on the vast potential of Mexico’s diverse culinary world—and is sure to leave an impression on anyone who makes to the satisfying trip.
Daily noon-11pm. 74 Wudaoying Hutong, Dongcheng District 东城区五道营胡同74号 (8404 0767)
Photos: Uni You
This article appeared on p24-25 of the beijingkids September 2018 Teen Takeover issue