Think “carved meat” in Beijing, and Peking duck might come to mind.
But Peking duck is generally a formal affair, reserved for special occasions.
Lamb leg—roasted on a spit over a grill—is the austere alternative.
In an alley just south of the city’s famous Lama Temple, the air is filled with the smell of lamb. Tendrils of meat-scented vapor clouds swirl above tiled roofs.
This alley, called Xintaicang Hutong, is home to Zhangji Roast Lamb Leg (张记烤羊腿), and it’s the last barbecue joint of its kind in the neighborhood.
As recently as two years ago, the hutongs—the alleys that make up old Beijing—surrounding Lama Temple were packed with meat lovers sitting on stools and carving up roast lamb legs on spits.
But ever since the city kicked off a campaign to redevelop the hutongs in 2017, this type of restaurant has become increasingly rare.
Fortunately, Zhangji is still roasting.
The secret to Zhangji’s success is simple: really good lamb. Everything else is just accoutrements.
Walk in, and you’ll immediately see the roasting room, full of massive, meters-high ovens that are staffed by two to three people at all times.
When you sit down, a server will show you an uncooked leg—frozen and on a spit—in the same way a sommelier might show you a fine vintage.
Upon your approval, she’ll whisk it off to the ovens and return a few minutes later with a mostly cooked lamb leg.
The rest of the cooking is up to you. Hot coals are placed in a bed beneath the table, which now functions as a grill. The leg is hoisted on a spit above it. With the carving tools on your table, you can hack away however you please.
This no-frills roasting experience originates from the Mongolians, who influenced Beijing’s cuisine when they invaded the city in the 13th century.
Chinese al fresco
Two years ago, the whole affair would have taken place on the street. During the summers, lamb leg restaurants would set up tables outside, and diners would grill with scooters and bikes zooming just inches away.
In 2017, Beijing’s government began cracking down on small businesses that violated laws which were technically on the books but never enforced.
Lamb leg restaurants were one of the targets.
The crackdown hit the hutongs hardest because the regulations sought to clean up the narrow alleyways and commercialize them. Any restaurants with exteriors that did not align with the traditional hutong look were required to renovate, and for many lamb leg restaurants, that meant removing their signage and outdoor seating.
Some businesses closed down after customers were unable to find them. Others were just outright denied licenses by local authorities.
Another hutong just north of Zhangji—Beixinqiao Third Alley—was once known for its vibrant street food culture. Here, Tanhua Roast Lamb Leg (碳花烤羊腿), one of Zhangji’s competitors, grew popular with tourists after a mention in Lonely Planet.
Two years ago, the street was decked with stringed lights and would be so crammed with diners on plastic stools that it was hard to bike through.
But the crackdown put an end to outdoor seating, the street’s main draw, and Tanhua had to move grilling indoors, losing its appeal.
Zhangji has adapted to gentrification by building a rooftop dining area to replace its curbside seating. It even took over a neighboring building for additional wintertime space. On a recent visit, crowds were spilling out of the restaurant, waiting for seats.
Few others, though, have been as lucky as Zhangji, and there’s no telling whether this restaurant—and its traditional way of eating lamb—might fade into culinary history, too.