My attraction to Xinjiang cuisine goes back to my youth.
I recall vividly the taste of that large bowl of fried beef noodles with cumin that my classmates and I treated ourselves to when we were in college. It was only many years later that I learnt that cumin is widely used in Muslim cuisine.
I only became aware of the many good Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing after my trip to the Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in 2007. There's nothing quite comparable to the aroma of a freshly baked naan (or bread) sold on the streets of Kuerle. Later, when I traveled with a group of journalists in the no-man's land of Arjin, food was so scarce that even instant noodles were hard to come by. But there was plenty of hot lamb soup, that turned out to be a magnificent energy booster.
After my return, I began to crave it, as did the other members of the group.
So we headed to the restaurant affiliated to the Beijing office of Beyinguoleng Mongolian autonomous prefecture of Xinjiang. Later, I tried the restaurant affiliated to Urumqi Beijing office.
But only lately have I tried two restaurants affiliated to Xinjiang's Beijing office: Xinjiang Yisilan (Muslim) Restaurant, and Xinjiang Hotel's Hantenggeli Islamic Restaurant. There is also a third restaurant, that I am yet to eat at, and that is Xinjiang Xiyu Restaurant, located in the basement of one of the buildings inside Xinjiang Beijing office.
Both Xinjiang Yisilan Restaurant and Xinjiang Hantenggeli Restaurant have a wide, public dining area like a canteen. Xinjiang Hantenggeli, the hotel restaurant, has a more formal, and newer decor. But many people believe Xinjiang Yisilan Restaurant has a better Xinjiang "feel". The food presentation at Hantenggeli looks more organized, while that at Xinjiang Yisilan is more casual.
The average cost at Xinjiang Yisilan will come to around 50 yuan ($7.76) per person, and at Xinjiang Hantenggeli, a slightly higher 60 yuan per person.
These restaurants offer much to make meat lovers happy. Nowhere else can you find a lamb kebab so gratifying at 3 yuan a piece. They wash down well with a bottle of Yanjing, or Xinjiang's local black beer.
Other options include roast lamb back, lamb leg, and even roast whole lamb. The lamb is served in soup and bronze pot as well as roasted the traditional way.
Start your order with a bowl of yogurt, which is served quickly and can satisfy your appetite as you wait for other foods.
The homemade yogurt here is better than what you can find elsewhere, and nicely topped with raisin.
Portions are generous and dishes are such that they lend themselves to optimum use. Take "big bowl chicken". When you are done with the chicken you can put noodles in the soup and continue. The braised lamb served on a base of naan is enough to satisfy two.
I especially recommend sauted lamb with noodles, sided with cucumber slices. Its cumin flavoring is delectable.
Another attraction of these Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing are the stores selling Xinjiang products, located at the gate. This is the season to pick up seedless grapes, red apricots, and Kuerle aromatic pears. Also check out the paper-skin walnut and dried fruits.