I’ve just returned from ten days in China, five in Shanghai and five in Beijing. Thanks to earlier posts and other advice, it was a fantastic food trip. Here are the highlights from Shanghai, grouped by cuisine.
My related Beijing post is at http://www.chowhound.com/topics/456997
Two great meals, one at the glitzy South Beauty and one at the humbler Pin Chuan. South Beauty defies my Chowhound instincts: despite a huge, varied menu and lots of attention to design and style, the food was outstanding. I especially liked the shredded duck with ginger and chili, in which the sweetness of the ginger balanced the chilies, the twice-cooked pork, and the thinly sliced pork served cold hanging on a wooden rack with dipping sauces (which looked like “meat laundry” the way it hung). At Pin Chuan, I liked comparing two different noodles: dan dan mien, swimming in a bowl of chili oil with a sprinkling of meat, and Sichuan cold noodles, with a sesame and vinegar sauce and cucumber shreds.
Two more great meals. Guyi is an upscale scene, quite mixed (Chinese & foreign). Loved the bacon with garlic shoots and pork ribs with cumin. Di Shui Dong is more local, less refined, and more charming. The bacon with garlic shoots here was even better, and I really liked a stir-fry of chopped pickled vegetables (not sure what kind), chilies, and green onions.
Another vote for Jia Jia Tang Bao. Definitely the best soup dumplings I’ve ever tried. They’re ugly and floppy, all lopsided from an impossibly generous amount of soup, but the skins hold perfectly and the pork is mellow and sweet. A total bargain (7.50 Yuan = 1 dollar for around a dozen), too. Went twice around noontime: once we waited around 30 minutes, and the other time there was no wait because it was raining.
Nanxing Mantou, in the Yu Gardens, was a disappointment. The xiao long bao skins were too thick, with less tasty meat. I also tried the tennis-ball sized individual soup dumpling, which comes with a straw to suck out the soup. It was no better than the frozen pot pies I remember from childhood: gummy dough sitting too long with dull broth, with little if any meat. The one redeeming dish here (we ate on the top floor) was the salty cashew bun: crunchy, salty, sweet, and flaky. Mmm.
Best of all in the dumpling category was Yang’s Fry Dumplings for sheng jian bao, thick soup dumplings pan-fried on one side. All the fun of xiao long bao with the added benefit of the crunchy, toasted bottom. Never seen these outside of Shanghai.
My preference is for the spicy foods of Sichuan and Hunan, so sweeter Shanghai cooking was not a big draw for me. Still, we had a great meal at Shanghai Uncle, another glitzy spot for foreigners and upscale locals. Local standards – braised pork, smoked fish – were all very good, but my favorite was “8 treasures,” cubed chewy rice cakes (like Korean dok) tossed with diced pork, mushrooms, and several other treasures I’m now forgetting. That dish is a nice mix of tastes and textures and unlike anything else I tried in China.
Pin Chuan, 47 Taojiang Lu, French Concession, across from US Consulate
South Beauty, Taojiang Lu, French Concession, and other branches
Guyi, 87 Fumin Lu, French Concession
Di Shui Dong, 56 Maoming Nan Lu, 2nd floor, northwest corner at Changle Lu, French Concession
Jia Jia Tang Bao, 90 Huanghe Lu, just north of People’s Square
Yang’s Fry Dumplings, multiple branches, including across from Jia Jia Tang Bao on Huanghe Lu
Shanghai Uncle, multiple branches
Re Guyi: I would not call Guyi upscale, price is quite reasonable there. My favorite 2 dishes are the fish head with chilli paste, and the shrimps on the chilli pot. (Both are not the correct translation as I have forgotten the name until I read the menu again) Both are extremely spicy so forget it if you cannot eat hot food. I think most foreigners would have problem eating the fish head but the Chinese always consider the fish head as the best part.
Re Nanxiang Mantou: I don't know why Xiao Long Bao here is getting such a bad wrap in Chowhound. I have eaten XLB for many years in many countries, and think the XLB here is actually pretty good. And while it is in tourist area, I do not think it is touristy. Sitting beside me are 4 Shanghai retirees, and being a fluent Mandarin speaker, we chat about the art of eating XLB: poking a small hole to sip the juice, then add a bit ginger with soya sauce before swallowing the rest. I prefer XLB with crab roe so that is the one I ordered rather than the standard pure meat XLB. I also ordered the one you described as tennis ball size XLB with the straw but I feel the purpose of this XLB is to let the person tried the juicy rich stock, but not the meat. In my opinion, the tasty part of XLB is actually the juice, not the meat, which is why most of the time, I ordered XLB with crab roe to enhance the flavor.
Re Shanghai Unlce: which branch did you try? I tried the one on the basement behind Westin Hotel, and the XuJiaHui branch. Since the visit was 2 years apart, I thought there was some differences in its dishes and presentation. The one at the Bund center seem to be more upscale.
re: Xiao Yang
Yes, I know you dislike Nanxiang from earlier thread. It is either I have different taste bud from the rest of CH or I was lucky to get a good quality one on the day of my visit there.
I think the one I tried is on the 3rd floor as I recall climbing quite a few steps on the way up. Definitely not take out and I don't recall any industrial strength wrapper. Can't compare to 20 years ago as I am a regular visitor to Shanghai only in the last 5 years.
On another note, I have also tried the Nanxiang branch in Tokyo and I thought the quality there is good too.
re: david kaplan
Yes, that is right, the one at Roppongi Hill, on the basement 2 (if my recollection is correct). The one in Tokyo is more refined, presentation is better and not as chaotic as the Shanghai branch. I can't really remember the difference in XLB as I had too many XLB in past few years but I just remember I enjoyed both branches. I don't think the tennis ball with straw is available in Tokyo though.
I think the chewy rice cake that you described in Shanghai Uncle is called Nian Gao. But usually "8 Treasures" refers to either 8 Treasure Rice "Ba Bao Fan" or 8 Treasure duck "Ba Bao Ya". It is rare to hear 8 Treasure assocaite with Nian Gao. Maybe someone can explain if I am wrong.
The Eight Treasures Rice Cakes may be an invention of Shanghai Uncle. I didn't notice it on the menu myself when I went (Xujiahui branch) but novelist and food writer Nicole Mones described the very same dish at that branch:
"Another triumph is 'Eight Treasure with sticky rice cake'. Chewy rice cakes are cooked in an addictive piquant sauce with pine nuts, fine-cubed pork, diced mushrooms, and other goodies, then topped with a mound of crystal-fresh shrimp."
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