{restaurants} Foraging for Food in Harbin, China

Oddly enough, there are basically no resources I could find on the web or in a book or really ANYWHERE about where and what to eat in Harbin, China. Being home to the fabulous winter wonderland known as the Harbin Snow and Ice World I thought maybe other people had gone there and eaten things and written something about it but it seems that’s actually not the case. And what little is written about it is pretty thin on details AND choices. So, in an effort to provide a helpful, instructive resource for anyone who needs/wants to eat in this frigid burg of 10 million people or so- I offer you what I learned about eating and drinking from my short trip there this month, but I warn you… it ain’t much.

The bulk of the (mostly useless) travel resources on Harbin were wont to describe these frost-covered folks of Northeastern China as gruff, hardy types who drink a lot to stay warm. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but because of its proximity to Siberia, Harbin is home to many Russians so of course there is a heavy Russian influence on the food. The upshot of this is that there is some good Russian food to be had.

the Russian onion dome of St. Sophia church now houses a museum of Harbin history in its gorgeous interior.

Harbin is not touristy for Westerners, which means 3 things, as far as I can tell. The first thing is that you can eat well really cheaply- more challenging in more well-visited Chinese cities- and have a sit-down dinner for 2, in a perfectly nice restaurant with drinks, for no more than US $10, or even cheaper for lunch or breakfast. The second and most difficult thing (for me, and other non-Chinese speakers I assume) is that there is not much English spoken and there are not always English menus, which can pose challenges. For example, one morning we had no trouble getting big yummy plates of fried dumplings but it took us about 20 minutes of pointing, gesturing, and pantomiming to get a bottle of water. But, food being food, you can generally figure it out! And the third and funniest thing is that when they do have an English menu, often, hilarity ensues from reading the bizarre translations.

There is a long, cobblestone pedestrian street that combines Chinese, Western, and Russian architecture in an attractive way. This pedestrian street, Zhongyang Da Jie, or the Central Street, is home to many restaurants and quite a few bars.

A cheaper, chillier, chancier alternative to taking a taxi home in the cold.

Of course, Harbin is not immune to Western influence– you can get your standard fast food in Harbin, and as in the rest of China, KFC reigns supreme. With over 30 branches in town, they are so ubiquitous that one place we were looking for was described to us as “near the KFC on the main street” and we were vexed not to be able to find it- until it dawned on us that there was, in fact, a KFC on every other block of the main street. You can find McDonalds and Pizza Hut as well. But the only vestige of globalization that you will probably actually desire will not be available, because Harbin remains untouched and unspoilt by all of the good Western coffee chains, including Starbucks. You’ll have to turn to watery hot chocolate, Nescafe, jasmine tea, or whiskey to warm and comfort yourself on the cold winter nights (and mornings and afternoons too.)

But that’s quite enough exposition: Here are my thoughts on some places to eat and drink!


How to get there: it’s on Zhongyang Da Jie, about 3 blocks down from the Songhua River end. It has a pretty big sign so it would be hard to miss.

This is a HILARIOUS place. With no Starbucks, you might think of trying USABucks but I recommend you go for an alcoholic drink there, NOT a coffee- the coffee is weaker than a Minnesota bridge and nearly as unpleasant. And while the logo bears a striking resemblance to Starbucks, once inside the place, you’ll see it’s actually done up in Sarsaparilla-style Old West saloon-type deal. But, it has 2 things going for it: it’s really warm inside, and it’s kind of fun. They have snacks too- me personally, I was not adventurous enough to order one of these snacks- here is the menu- a pretty far cry from the scones and muffins you’ll get at the original ‘Bucks.

I know, it’s SO hard to decide whether you want Explode the Valley (?!?!?), Dried Intestines, or Red Bowel with your crappy coffee. But really- go to warm up and order a beer or some whiskey, maybe a Happy Nut to go with it, and enjoy the scene… which may or may not include the owner parading around in full 1920s military regalia, greeting the patrons like a Chinese Eva Peron.

Lao Chang Spring Pancake

How to get there: the address is 180 Zhongyang Da Jie (The Central Street) and it has this nifty sign in English. It’s about 2 blocks down from the Songhua River end.
This was a great spot! Imagine an order of mu shu pork. Now imagine, like, mu shu everything. That’s pretty much the concept of Lao Chang Spring Pancake. You order a bunch of stuff, and spring pancakes with sauce and onions, and you mu shu all of it up and eat pancakes. It’s really tasty and it’s a pretty nice restaurant- and a nice hearty lunch with entirely too much food, for 2 people, was around US$15 with beer and tea- so I think you could realistically get out of there for much less, if you ordered fewer mu shu-able items. We left more than half of the food uneaten- we just had no idea how big the portions would be or how filling it was.

Orient King of Dumplings

How to get there: I think there is more than one, but the one we went to is a couple of buildings down from the Shangri-La Hotel, so if you are facing the Shangri-La, it’s to your right.

Cheesy name aside, we ate breakfast here because the stupid continental breakfast in the Shangri-La Hotel was 138 yuan per person. That’s like almost US $40 for 2 people which is a crazy price! So we walked on over to Oriental King of Dumplings and got some freshly-made fried dumplings for breakfast each day. You can watch a bunch of folks in surgical masks rolling out and filling the dumplings. They have an English menu… sort of. This is the most bizarre and entertaining bit of the menu:

I totally wanted to order “scalding cymbidium” but Ross wouldn’t let me. What IS that?!And how did they get the word “lobscouse” for soup? (According to wikipedia, cymbidium is a kind of orchid and oleaster is a kind of shrub… so those seem odd. It turns out “lobscouse” is an obscure British sailor’s term for a hardtack stew. SO the only logical conclusion I can draw is that the menu translator is actually a myopic, floraphilic, 19th century Liverpudlian stevedore. There is simply no other possible explanation.) We actually did order something from the “Fries explodes” menu one day- mistake- I would stick with the dumplings. At any rate the dumpling section of the menu is translated reasonably – you can get fried or steamed, and for my money the fried are more enjoyable. They’re 3.5 yuan (50 cents) for 6 and each person will probably need around 12. So you can get out of there for a $2 breakfast unless you do as the Chinese do (and apparently, now I do) and drink beer with breakfast, in which case you’ll end up spending a couple more dollars.

Russia Food and Coffee

How to get there: It’s right near the KFC! Just kidding. I mean, it is near a KFC but that’s totally unhelpful in this context. It’s just off Zhongyang Da Jie, essentially across from Lao Chang Spring Pancake- about 2 blocks down from the Songhua River end of the street.

This place is I think the only place I saw in a guidebook- but it makes sense because the food is quite tasty, the service is nice, it’s cheap, it’s a pretty attractive ambiance, and it doesn’t have a funny menu, just a regular menu. We got pot beef which was a deceptively large amount of beef and vegetable stew in a little tiny pot, mashed potatoes with black pepper sauce, and best of all, a fantastic piroshki (they spelled it “piloshki”)- one of my best ever… a good piroshki is hard to find! (The other two that round out my top three are my friend Jane’s homemade ones, and the ones we used to get as kids from a now-defunct Russian shop on 9th and Irving.)

Dinner for 2 was around $10 with beers. They had a lot of fun coffee and tea choices but we were too full. It seemed like it would be a nice place to warm up with a tea and a snack if you’re hanging out on Zhongyang Da Jie during the day!

Mr. Lee California Beef Noodle King U.S.A.

How to get there: they’re a chain so you will see them all over China. The one we went to is near the St. Sophia end of Zhongyang Da Jie (The Central Street.)

I don’t know what is up with this name- I find it pretty amusing- but this is a chain throughout China. We were really hungry and wanted to be warm so we checked it out. For 10 yuan (about US $1.40) you can get a big bowl of passable ramen in beef/soy broth with chunks of beef. The beef is a little like yak meat (ie: chewy as hell) but damn, it’s not too bad, especially if you’re cold and want to be thrifty! I imagine if you were drunk it would also be satisfying. It’s not, like, awesome though.

Ice Palace Bar & Restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel

How to get there: go to the Shangri-La hotel in the winter and ask where the ice bar is.

The Shangri-La sets up an ice bar- a bar made of ice with ice stools and everything ice- in such a way that you can enter and exit from the warm hotel. There are other ice bars we saw but this one was the coolest because it was the iciest- it had more things made of ice than the other places- and it was kind of hip with good lighting and dance beats. You can also grab a larger table and eat hot pot in this ice bar, which would be an interesting combo of the spicy spicy oil at the icy icy table. If you don’t bring a coat, they’ll lend you one. It was really expensive but I think that’s directly related to the fact that we stupidly ordered really expensive drinks, so I think it would only be kind of be normal hotel expensive if you paid more attention!

Coffee Garden

How to get there: it’s in the Shangri-La hotel.

“Coffee Garden” is a total misnomer because it’s actually a full-service restaurant that’s pretty nice. They have a lot of American/Western food and some kind of somewhat Westernized Chinese options. We only ate here because it was in our hotel and we were too cold to go out, but then it was surprisingly quite good and not nearly as expensive as we expected- reasonable, in fact… which is funny because everything else in the hotel was really expensive. We kept getting French Onion Soup room service and tried some other soups, which were really pretty tasty if you’re in the mood for something Western- but we really didn’t try the other stuff. A meal of hearty soup was around 30 yuan or less, like $4 or $5, which seemed reasonable in this context. Also, you can get imported wine if you have the hankering, but that will set you back a bit more. They also have a big fancy buffet that many people were partaking of- very lavish- but I’m not a buffet type of gal. After a couple weeks in China, sometimes you have the urge to go West. Note: bad ice cream.

DDL Bar and Coffee

How to get there: it’s a few storefronts off Zhongyang Da Jie, just around the corner from USABucks (walk down towards St. Sophia and hang a right.) Look for the “coffee” sign.

We were having some trouble finding an after-dinner spot and then frigid feet and desperation led us to settle in here. It was a nice surprise- a sweet, mellow, well-lit little cafe/bar with nice people and a good vibe. We had yummy lavender tea and beers and listened to the Russian hipsters chat and smoke.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for this, I am going there this week end and i was looking for this kind of information…. not much on the web about harbin!