There is a small restaurant around the corner from the main school that one of my colleagues introduced me to. It's easy to find because it has big fish tanks in the window (containing someone's dinner). I usually go there once a week, and the owner enjoys trying to talk with me about food; he has dug out all his old dictionaries from when he was in college! Between his dictionaries, my guidebook and the words I'm learning in Chinese class, we are creating our own food language together.
Most of the other foreigners seem to limit themselves to the same handful of dishes every time, but I like to try different things. Sometimes I just ask for a particular vegetable and see what comes.
Last week my colleague and I had fun trying to order a dish we had had in other restaurants, a kind of giant round flat salty omelet with scallions in it, which may or may not be called Jidan Bing. I did a google search on the name and the images were not of what we ate, but rather a fried street bread with egg brushed on it that I have seen, so I'm not sure of the name of this omelet - anyway, it's yummy. I think "dan" means egg.
Somehow this led to the owner and his wife bringing over their middle school daughter and her friend, who were apparently on lunch break from the nearby school, to try to talk with us. Next thing we know, his wife has brought us some fried bread with scallions called You Bing (there is also a pic on my "Street Food" entry showing the You Bing in front of the woman selling squid-on-a-stick), and some kind of soup which was slightly sweet and eggy and almost more like a dessert custard than a dinner soup; unfortunately I didn't get the name of it.
Yesterday I used a phrase from my guidebook to ask him to recommend something for me. He brought me a dish called Suanla Tudou Si, which is potatoes cut in very thin Julienne strips (about the thickness of spaghetti), and cooked with garlic and dried hot peppers. I had eaten this once before at a street vendor, but the restaurant's version was much tastier. Both times the potatoes were quite crisp (at home I would have thought them undercooked). This time there were BIG hunks of garlic and some strips of red and green bell peppers as well. I pushed the hot pepper bits off to the side, and it was perfect. Just about as spicy as I can still enjoy - enough to make me sniffle but not enough to make me cry, as long as I avoid eating the peppers.
Side note: My guidebook says that one of the hallmarks of this region's cuisine (Northern China/Mandarin) is that they use a lot of garlic and scallions - I love it! It also says that this is primarily a bread region rather than a rice region, which accounts for why we have to ask for rice in a restaurant. They don't bring it automatically.
He also brought me some dumplings called Jianbao, which are yeast dumplings with various fillings which are steamed and then fried quickly in a pan. One of the fillings was a tasty pork filling; the other filling was some kind of green vegetable which tasted like sardines to me and which I have encountered before, at my favorite little Baozi shop. I have no idea what it is or whether it's actually got sardines in it or is just a strange vegetable; I should find out what it's called so that I can avoid that one.
(Edited to change the links.)