Can you imagine that in 1961 the official statistics listed 161 residents of China living in Spain?! Today some 160,000 documented Chinese live within Spanish borders. However, given the lack of community, the food has been affected as well, as many immigrants haven't ventured into opening authentic Chinese restaurants, but have opted for buying out Spanish businesses, such as "necessity shops" or dollar stores, labeled colloquially chinos, coffee shops or tapas bars - all of which are open on Sunday, an abnormal but countable difference in their way of doing business. In fact many claim, "no cierra nunca", the restaurant never closes. Undoubtedly, they are hard workers, I just wish these immigrants were willing to share what they know and that Spanish appetites and mentalities were open to discover the true tastes of their homeland. The southern immigrants are afraid the spicy nature of their dishes will frighten us, while other regions stick to non threatening ingredients like chicken or beef on the menu. If only they knew that Spaniards eat their fair share of "strange" foods - intestines, blood sausage, baby lambs!
This Summer a popular food columnist, Mikel López Iturriaga, let the cat out of the bag, popularizing some of these chino chinos, a Spaniard's way of saying "a Chinese restaurant of authentic caliber." Sure, a lot of Chinese restaurants can be found while wandering the cosmopolitan streets of Spain's biggest cities, but, the key lies in whether or not these are worthy of a meal. Some typical characteristics to look for are: the clientele, "are there Chinese families and friends dining inside?" or "can I pronounce the name of the restaurant?" - and I'm not talking about whether or not you know Spanish, but whether it's a direct translation such as The Panda (el oso panda) or Lucky Bamboo (El bambú suertudo.), also you must look around the restaurant, if the plates are covered with gooey orange sweet and sour sauces (salsa agridulce), run. Finally, these chinos chinos tend to have minimal if any decoration; basic tables, chairs with faded seat covers, perhaps even tearing at the sides, maybe some mirrors. But you will smell the genuineness and a good whiff should convince you.
Notable restaurants deserving of a visit and achieving the highly touted status of chino chino include:
Calle Silva 20
Madrid, Spain 28004
+34 915 22 20 59
Metro: Callao (L3/L5)
Their specialty is the hot-pot, a boiling soup broth of fish, lamb or beef served in a large tin bowl (gas stove included) that easily serves 4 people, 8 people for the larger size. It's a unique, social, and fun way to dine and experience first hand "playing with your food". The dish is brought to your table steaming hot and put to boil, you order ingredients (fresh vegetables, raw meat, fried tofu, fish balls, etc.) and you began dipping your ingredients in either side of the ying-yang dish, one side spicy, the other standard, until the items are cooked to your liking and ready to eat.
Not the hot-pot, but mao xue wang from Ni Hao, a SPICY soup with vegetables, pig's blood and tripe. I pointed at a neighbor's table, and this is what we got- authentic! The menu didn't even include a translation and the waitresses stared on in disbelief at us, the foreigners, red in the face but pleased with our adventurous taste.
28005 Madrid, Spain
+34 915 48 21 03
Metro: Plaza España (L2/3/10)
Literally known as the "Chinese in the underground parking", I would describe this as the first Chinese hole-in-the-wall I've ever seen, because literally it's a hollowed out space of the parking's tunnel. It seats few, there is always a line, and the menu is basically chicken scratch between Chinese symbols and Spanish, but you can be sure that you will have within your reach credible home cookin'. An added bonus that it won't burn a hole your in wallet. My guilty pleasure is the pan chino, sometimes to-go as an afternoon snack.
Carrer d'Ali Bei 65
+34 932 47 68 31
Barcelona, Catalonia 08013 (tucked behind the streets of the bus station, Estacio del Nord)
Metro: Arc de Triomf
Above all this place is known for their incredible prices. Additionally, they make their own noodles and have a lunch buffet is you're into that. Order the sopa de fideos and the empanadillas a la plancha. If you haven't had enough, hop across the street to a legitimate grocery store for ginger root, bok choy, mooncakes and other favorites.
Entrance to Chen-Ji. I had to do a double-take as I walked past, it's easy to miss.
Plaça Doctor Letamendi 11
Barcelona, Catalonia 08011 (cross street is Carrer d'Arago 224)
+34 935 03 18 88
Another option for hot-pots when visiting la cuidad Condal, this popular dish is known as Si Chuan Huo Guo.
Do you have any favorites? I know I've missed Valencia, the north and Andalusia. Who can chime in?