Kick off your meal with some mouth-numbing mala
Nanxincang is thought to be China’s oldest still-standing granary, dating back to the early 1400s, so it makes sense that it is already home to nearly a dozen eateries.
But it has taken the arrival of Tianxia Yanseshi Fanguan [or Lord Of Salt] from Dashanzi to inject the complex with a shot of adrenaline it hasn’t seen since its renovation in 2005.
Adrenaline is the right word, as the peppery cuisine served here induces a strong reaction. Yanshao huasheng (12RMB), fried peanut cake with salt, kicks off a fiery feast, with smoky, salty and spicy mala-coated nuts.
The jiaxiang mi doufu (16RMB), tossed clear noodles in chilli sauce, arrive with a sharp, biting dressing that coats the chewy soy noodles, and provides a cooling respite amidst the pepper party.
Perennial favourites such as gongbaojiding (32RMB) and ganbian siji dou (26RMB), are at once classic and distinctive. The kungpao chicken comes in an ideal form: spicy, tender and sweet, generous with meat and full of fresh, biting scallions.
The stirfried fried green beans with minced pork and preserved vegetables are toothy and satisfying in a way veggies too rarely are. Another sucai, the congmiao chao zhaopian (18RMB), is a fresh and flavourful take on sweet potato – the sharp and sweet chunks are given an added punch with substantial pieces of green onion.
Perhaps the only dish that doesn’t outdo potential rivals is xiangla tongpan xia (68RMB), or fragrant shrimp served in a (massive) copper dish. Delicate and aromatic, certainly, yet it could do with more anise and garlic.
Tianxia’s energy is not just the result of hearty, spicy Sichuan fare; it can also be credited to a comfortable, bustling atmosphere fostered by owner Huang Ke’s attention to design.
The restaurant is spacious, with wood beams, handicrafts and beaded curtains; it skirts the line between kitsch and cool, but ultimately feels homey. Manuela Zoninsein
Tianxia Yanseshi Fanguan Nanxincang, 22 Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng district (6409 6185). Open 10am-2pm, 5-9.30pm daily. Meal for two around 100RMB. 东城区东四十 条22号南新仓(天下盐色食饭馆)