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Cheap Eats in Shanghai

2020-05-07

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One of the true hallmarks of a food mecca is the availability of excellent eateries at bargain basement prices. Tokyo has its Yakitori joints, Hong Kong has its Fish Ball stalls and Athens has its Gyros stands. While Shanghai is already internationally famous for its mouth-watering Soup Dumplings, there exists a much wider plethora of outstanding peasant dishes awaiting adventurous minds and empty stomachs. With only two-and-a-half days in Shanghai and thousands of restaurants to choose from, we consulted the locals and visited 5 reasonably cheap eateries for the most representative Shanghainese dishes. If you’re looking for cheap and authentic eats in Central Shanghai on a tight travel budget, the following places are regarded by its citizens as some of the best informal eateries serving nothing but genuine Shanghainese cuisine, at RMB 20 to 50 (CAD$3 to $8) per person as of 2013. Food Review: LANTING RESTAURANT (Shanghai) Address: 107 Songshan Road, Luwan District, Shanghai Hours: 11:00-21:30 Website/Map: Map from Google Directions: Take the metro to South Huangpi Road station and take Exit 2 onto Huaihai Zhonglu. Walk east for about 100m and turn right onto Songshan Road. Lanting is about 1.5 blocks down the street on the left hand side. See the picture of the storefront below.

This tiny mom-and-pop operation, located within easy walking distance from the excellent shopping at Xintiandi, is about as authentically Shanghainese as it gets. There are 2 chefs, 6 little square tables, and a perennial line-up with patrons sitting outside on wobbly plastic chairs in a queue. Wait times can be extremely long (ie. 2 hours), temper can flare and fights occasionally break out between patrons, or even between a patron and the owner on the night of our visit! Okay ... it's really not that rough. Just remember to show up sharply at 17:00 to get your table (or a slip of paper indicating your position in line), and enjoy the spontaneous entertainment of the scuffling locals. Hey ... at least they’re passionate about food!

Jokes aside, the 6 tables at Lanting Restaurant are undoubtedly among Shanghai’s most sought-after seats. While acclaimed restaurants such as Fu 1088 do accept reservations weeks in advance, working-class Lanting has always operated on the premise of first-come-first-serve, seven days a week. We arrived at 17:30 to finally receive our table at 18:45, and those who arrived at 18:45 would likely never receive a table by closing time. Patrons from all over Shanghai come here for the same reason: outstanding home-cooking that taste even better than mom’s, at very reasonable prices that even blue-collar dad can afford.

Once seated, there’s ONE magical dish that everyone orders, an old-fashioned Shanghainese favorite with the unappetizingly-sounding name of Ji Gu Jiang, or Chicken Bones in Sauce. It’s a dark, syrupy concoction of chopped chicken drumsticks, braised in a thick, gluey glaze consisting of dark soy sauce, the region’s indigenous yellow wine, and an insane amount of rock sugar. For any Shanghai nese native over the age of 30, the taste must evoke childhood memories of how grandma used to make it -- intoxicatingly sweet, savory, and seriously addictive. After the chicken is all finished, the left-over sauce then goes perfectly on top of plain rice, all for the cheap price of RMB 28 (CAD$4.4).

Lanting also boasts two wildly popular deep-fried dishes, one made with boneless pork strips and the other with boneless fish fillets. Our Deep-Fried Yellow Croaker Fish in Batter (Miantuo Huangyu) was yet another local peasant favorite, though it’s more commonly made with the cheaper Small Yellow Croakers where entire fish, heads and fins and all, are battered then deep-fried to a crisp in the oil wok. Here the fish are deboned, deep-fried and served with a dip of local brown grain vinegar, which in principle isn’t unlike its internationally-popular English counterpart served with malt vinegar, but given an exotic oriental twist here. It was by this time of the night when tempers came to a boil outside the restaurant, as many queuing patrons had already stood for 2 hours. Now, our table happened to be located next to the entrance. One young Mandarin-speaking male barged through the door, stood right beside our table and just roared at the owner’s wife at the top of his lungs: “Guo Hao Bu Deng! Shi Bu Shi Ni Men Ding De Kui Ju!” screamed the young patron, “Is it your own rule not to wait for customers who missed the call for queue numbers!?” Perhaps it’s got something to do with our restaurant selections, but we always seem to get front row seats in the midst of some local drama (see our experience in Osaka when the Yakuza arrived to collect protection-money during our dinner). This time we decided to quickly wrap up our meal, before the shouting match turned into a brawl.

We finished our dinner with a dish of locally grown Alfalfa Leaves (Caotou), stir-fried with a strong dose of rice liquor, costing about RMB 16 (CAD$2.5). Now you see the reason behind the incredible popularity of this unassuming eatery, and why Shanghainese locals are practically fighting for the privilege of one simple table. Where else can you find such top quality Shanghainese home-cooking for RMB 15 to 30 per entree, within Central Shanghai, in this age of rampant inflation? Although ... the next time I’ll probably skip the 2 hour line-up, and just take out some Chicken Bones in Sauce and plain rice to head back to the hotel room! Bill for Two Persons Chicken Bones in Sauce RMB 28 Deep-Fried Yellow Croaker Fish in Batter RMB 30 Stir-Fried Alfalfa Leaves in Wine RMB 16 Large Draft Beer RMB 10 Seven-Up RMB 5 Rice and Plate Sets x 2 RMB 4 TOTAL RMB 91 (CAD$14.4) So you want a taste of authentic Shanghainese cuisine at cheap local prices, but you don’t have 2 hours to wait in a line-up. And you want a place with English menus. And you want it right next to your sightseeing, within walking distance from the Bund? Well, there is ONE such place that I know of ... Food Review: LVYA RESTAURANT (Shanghai) Address: 372 Jiangxi Zhonglu, Huangpu District, Shanghai Hours: 09:00-21:00 Website/Map: Map from Google Directions: Take the metro to East Nanjing Road station and exit onto East Nanjing Road. Walk east in the direction of the Bund and turn left on Jiangxi Zhonglu. Lvya Restaurant is about 2.5 blocks down the street on the right side. See the picture of the storefront below, and look for the long staircase leading to the 2nd floor.

There are many reasons why I just LOVE this restaurant: excellent Shanghai nese food, authentic local atmosphere, cheap factory workers’ prices, and best of all, its convenient location just 2 blocks from the most beautiful section of the Bund’s shoreline. When asking for directions, remember it’s not called "LOVE YA" or "LOO YA," but "LÜ YA" where the Ü sound is similar to the Germanic Ü with the umlaut (eg. ZÜRICH). Chinese computer users have long adopted the use of the letter "V" to represent this sound (versus the regular "U" sound), hence "Lvya" instead of "Luya."

Once you get past the pronunciation and the intimidating staircase at the entrance, you’ll enter into the world of authentic Shanghai nese dining without any moderation towards foreigners. The clientele is unapologetically loud, occasionally rowdy, and is typically generous at filling the hall with cigarette smoke and strewing the carpet with peanut shells -- so you’ve been warned! But should you choose to stay, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best genuine Shanghai nese cuisine at neighborhood diner prices. This place is famous among the locals, for good reasons.

The surprise of the evening was a more contemporary favorite with the confusing name of Yu Mian Jin, or Fish Gluten. These turned out to be soft, puffy meatballs made of pureed fish and egg white, which really had nothing to do with gluten at all. At the cheap price of RMB 22 this simply could not have been made from saltwater fish, but it was so well-prepared that I did not detect any hint of the repulsive "muddy" flavor characteristic of freshwater fishes. The fish puffs were in fact extremely fresh, juicy and miraculously chewy, and were perfectly seasoned with a few squares of cured ham. Another excellent dish for less than CAD$4. Aside from the above dishes, a friend of mine (you know who you are) visited a few months later and found the Red Braised Pork and Ningbo Glutinous Rice Balls to be very recommendable as well. While Lvya Restaurant may seem chaotic and bewildering on first glance, the food is cheap, genuinely Shanghainese and most importantly, consistently excellent in terms of quality. If you're looking for authentic local cuisines to complement your sightseeing at the Bund, this would be my best recommendation. Bill for Two Persons Flash-Fried Shrimp (RMB 13.8 per 100g x 400g) RMB 55 Fish Gluten with Vegetables RMB 22 Spongy Gluten in Four Happiness Style RMB 12 Large Beer RMB 10 Rice RMB 1 TOTAL RMB 100 (CAD$15.9) The above restaurants should satisfy your needs for cheap and delicious sit-down dinners within Central Shanghai, for less than RMB 50 (CAD$8) per head. And if you’re looking for something absolutely dirt cheap (RMB 10 to 30), no worries. Shanghai is also famous for its mouth-watering assortment of peasant snacks, starting with its highly celebrated Soup Dumplings. Food Review: JIAJIA TANGBAO (Shanghai) Address: 90 Huanghe Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai Hours: 06:30-19:30 Website/Map: From Google Map Directions: Take the metro to People’s Square Station and take Exit 8 to West Nanjing Road. Head west and immediately turn right at the first street (Huanghe Road), where Jiajia Tangbao is two blocks ahead on the right side. Look for the queue and line-up with the locals.

The favorite on EVERY table is Shanghai’s timeless crowd-pleaser, the Flash-Fried Shrimp, or You Bao Xia. These are tiny freshwater shrimps found in local waters, repeatedly flash-fried in a sizzling oil wok until the inedible shells transform into a delicate crisp, and finally seasoned with a delightfully sweet finish. The result is the perfect dish for the lazy seafood lover: no peeling is required as the shrimps are meant to be eaten whole, shells and tails and all. As one can probably guess, these scrumptious morsels wash down exceptionally well with beer or the regional specialty of aged yellow wine. This was probably my number one favorite dish in Shanghai, even surpassing the outstanding (but several times more expensive) dishes at the highly acclaimed Fu 1088. Do note though, that these tiny crustaceans do possess hazardously sharp spines and shells, thus requiring a bit of caution before you pop the whole shrimp into your mouth. I personally like to first chew off the sharp spine on the shrimp head, but I’m sure each local foodie has his or her own trick.

Deliberately faithful to classic Shanghai nese flavors, Lvya is a dream for traditional gourmands and a nightmare for diabetics. There is absolutely no toning down of regional preferences for sugary sweetness to suit non-Shanghai nese (let alone Western) palates, as demonstrated in this cold dish of Sixi Kaofu, or Spongy Gluten in Four Happiness Style. I never really understood the whole gluten-free fad in the food industry from the perspective of the 99.9% who aren’t allergic, and when traveling in Japan or China I never shy away from blatantly gluten-made dishes. In fact I really enjoy the softness of Shanghai nese gluten and how the spongy texture soak up the flavorful marinade, compared to the denser and chewier versions seen in Southern China (as Simulated Duck) or Japan (as Yaki-Fu). This was also one of the cheapest restaurant dishes of our entire 17-day journey, at merely RMB 12 (CAD$2).

This place is a genuine Shanghai original as far as Soup Dumplings are concerned. If you have time for just one food adventure in Shanghai, this unassuming eatery, combined with the neighboring Yang's Dumpling, would be my top recommendation. And even if you don’t trust me, you have to trust the long line-up of locals and Chinese tourists alike outside this little shop all day, every day. Attracting its small army of followers is one and only one simple dish. Whether you call them Soup Dumplings, XLB Dumplings or Xiao Long Bao in standard Chinese, these little steamed buns with fillings of scaldingly hot soup and savory minced meat have quietly garnered fans around the world for years, even before the New York Times declared Din Tai Fung one of the "Top 10 Restaurants in the World" back in 1993. Since then Time Magazine has also hailed Din Tai Fung as one of “10 Things to Do” in Shanghai, which is a really unfortunate mistake made by a bunch of misinformed Lao Wai reporters with no understanding of Chinese food. So let me clarify this for all readers: Din Tai Fung is NOT a Shanghai tradition -- it’s actually a Taiwanese chain with branches as far as Los Angeles, Sydney, Tokyo, and then a few in Shanghai. At the Shanghai branches you’d be paying about 5 times the street price at RMB 120 for a steamer of 10 Pork-and-Crab-Caviar dumplings. Ask any random Shanghai nese guy and you’d be directed to the cheaper and much more authentic local joints, which is why we’re here at the extremely popular Jiajia Tangbao.

Jiajia Tangbao is a small local chain with multiple shops in town, the most convenient being this location right at the centre of Shanghai, two blocks north of the People’s Square metro station. Upon arrival you’ll see a long queue, which actually moves much quicker than it may seem with most patrons finishing their dumplings in about 20 minutes. Don’t be deterred by the posted menu in Chinese -- they do have a hand-scribbled English cheatsheet of a menu. Ordering was a no-brainer as we simply followed the example of the locals -- one steamer of Soup Dumplings and one dish of Vinegar with Shredded Ginger. We would have ordered 3 steamers between the two of us if we wanted a full lunch ... BUT there’s an equally delicious and even cheaper eatery right across the street that we had to save stomach room for (see review of Yang's Dumpling below).

Next to the counter was an open kitchen of 6 chefs collaborating in an assembly line of dumpling magic -- one to work the dough and churn out uniformly portioned flour balls, one to turn the balls into perfectly flat and circular wrappers, one to prepare the filling of minced pork, crab caviar, aspic and whatever secret ingredients it took, and three to perform the most delicate handicraft of folding the wrappers into circular cones sealing the soon-to-be liquefied filling of meat and soup inside. The sealing is most essential -- it would be considered a complete failure if the dumpling bursts before it reaches the patron’s tongue. It was early November when we visited, right in the middle of Crab Caviar season when local Hairy Crabs were harvested for their succulent golden roes. Top-of-the-line dumplings with Crab Meat and Caviar were available for a cool RMB 99 per dozen, which we didn’t order as I often find the taste of pure Crab Caviar fillings too strong for my preference. Our conservative and much cheaper choice was the Soup Dumplings with Pork and Crab Caviar at RMB 27, still possessing that intense flavor of Caviar and complimented by a soup base of freshly minced pork.

Just look at the luscious, bright yellow caviar oil oozing out of the folded seams of the Soup Dumplings, and you’ll see why these were simply the best either of us has ever had. Looking for that perfect thickness in the wrapping, almost paper-thin but just thick enough to prevent from bursting when picked up by chopsticks? Check! And that unmistakable flavor of Crab Caviar in the soup, with a portion generous enough to wow the tastebuds and yet not overpoweringly strong? Check! What about the filling of pork and caviar, disintegrating in the mouth with a genuine non-MSG-derived Umami flavor? Yup, they’re doing everything right to please the pickiest local gourmands, and hence the huge line-up of patrons you see outside the shop. Bill for Two Persons Soup Dumplings with Pork and Crab Caviar RMB 27 Vinegar with Shredded Ginger RMB 1 Soft Drink RMB 2 TOTAL RMB 30 (CAD$4.8) So far we’ve spent only RMB 30 (CAD$4.8) between the two of us, for some of the best Dim Sum (or Dian Xin in standard Chinese) in town. But this was only the first half of our lunch, as the aroma from Yang's Dumpling beckons just 20 metres away across the street ... Food Review: YANG’S DUMPLING (Shanghai) Address: 97 Huanghe Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai Hours: 10:00-22:00 Website/Map: From Google Map Directions: See the above directions for Jiajia Tangbao -- the two eateries are directly facing each other across the street.

So you want authentic Shanghai nese food, at prices even cheaper than the RMB 27 (CAD$4.3) steamer of Soup Dumplings at Jiajia? You’re still at the right place! Competing for business right across from Jiajia is a branch of Yang's Dumpling, one of Shanghai's most successful "fast food" chains. Instead of copying the American formula of cholesterol-laden burgers and fries, Shanghai nese entrepreneurs had taken take-outs for a healthier and addictively tasty turn, in the form of the succulent Shengjian, or Pan-Fried Dumplings.

If you’re wondering how good take-outs can possibly taste for a measly RMB 6 (CAD$1), you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The Shanghai nese are known to be religiously serious about their Pan-Fried Dumplings, and of the numerous specialty shops sprouting across the megapolis, Yang's Dumpling is widely regarded as one of the top local favorites (about 40 shops across Shanghai, and still expanding). The common feature at every storefront is an open kitchen where fresh batches of scrumptious dumplings are constantly being scraped off the gigantic wok, served piping hot and bursting with savory juices.

Patrons have come to expect a small line-up at any hour of the day, though wait times should be short as most of the orders are typically take-outs. Each order comes with four mouth-watering, soup-filled dumplings with thunderously crunchy pan-fried bottoms, serving up a satisfying breakfast or a light lunch for about half the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac. No wonder that the local KFC had to look past the Colonel’s Fried Chicken and come up with Spicy Shrimps on Rice in response -- Shanghai’s own fast food is good, and cutthroat-priced.

See the quantity of soup inside just one of these Dumplings, and you’ll understand why these were by far the juiciest Pan-Fried Dumplings either of us had ever tasted. Purists may point out that traditional Shanghai nese Shengjian are supposed to made with a drier, more meaty filling, but ourselves, and my wife in particular, absolutely loved this soup-filled version.

We finished our meal with a bowl of Clear Broth with Pork Balls, Tofu Puffs and Mung Bean Noodles, another local favorite for breakfasts or quick lunches. This was nowhere as good as the Pan-Fried Dumplings though, and we probably should have saved our stomach room for the next restaurant on our list. But we certainly had no complaints about Yang's Dumpling -- the dumplings were top quality, the portions were large, and we really couldn’t ask for a cheaper price than 4 large dumplings for RMB 6. Bill for Two Persons Pan-Fried Dumplings x 8 RMB 12 Clear Broth with Pork Balls, Tofu Puffs and Mung Bean Noodles RMB 9 TOTAL RMB 21 (CAD$3.3) After two light lunches at two of Shanghai’s best informal eateries within the course of an hour, you may think that we’re done for the afternoon. But as your dutiful reporter I’ve got another dumpling place on the itinerary, just 10 minutes’ walk to the east. Food Review: TAIKANG TANGBAOGUAN (Shanghai) Address: 768 Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street, Huangpu District, Shanghai Hours: 09:30-20:00 Website/Map: From Google Map Directions: Take the metro to People’s Square Station and walk east onto theNanjing Road Pedestrian Street. Taikang is about 100m into the pedestrian zone on the left hand side. NOTE that this is also within walking distance from Jiajia and Yang's reviewed above.

If you think we’re going overboard visiting THREE specialty eateries for dumplings in Shanghai in one day ... well, I can’t proclaim to be a lover of Chinese food if I fail to appreciate the different interpretations of Shanghai’s most famous contribution to the culinary world. The Soup Dumplings at Jiajia are your classical XLB Dumplings served in Chinese restaurants around the world, while the Pan-Fried Dumplings at Yang's belong to a whole different category of thick-skinned, pan-fried or deep-fried dumplings, which may or may not come with any soup inside. And finally at Taikang we’ve come for a 21st Century interpretation of the age-old Soup Dumpling, which looked like:

This! We’re talking about THE ultimate dumpling for soup lovers, a monstrous pouch 15 cm in diameter made with a delicate wrapping, and filled with nothing but liquefied, scaldingly hot soup. Unlike your traditional soup dumplings, there was no meatball to be found inside, only a thick broth of minced pork, crab meat and caviar, and of course the aspic to gel it all together during the wrapping stage.

Despite its deceptive flimsiness the wrapping was actually much stronger and stretchier than it appeared, and at no point were we in danger of puncturing the pouch and spilling the soup. This marvelous wrapping was something we had only previously seen on CCTV’s excellent documentary A Bite of China, on which the chef demonstrated blowing air into the pouch to expand it like a balloon. The flavor though was definite a couple notches lower than the excellent Jiajia -- the crab caviar in particular wasn’t quite fresh enough, and emitted that bitter fishiness characteristic of stale caviar. It was an interesting experience for once, but in terms of taste I would definitely recommend Jiajia and even Yang's over Taikang. Bill for Two Persons Soup Dumpling with Crab Meat and Caviar x 2 RMB 30 TOTAL RMB 30 (CAD$4.8)

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