Presenting, Shanghai-based inroads into the deep and spicy cuisine of this western China region. (Fish heads. You're looking for fish heads...)
Get the: Ganguo Green and red chili fish head; ganguo chicken with ginger and preserved bamboo shots.
Guyi was arguably the first place in Shanghai to elevate Hunan food to the white-tablecloth-and-chandelier standard and it’s both paid a price for it (lots of people write it off as being dumbed-down) and reaped the rewards (it’s full or nearly there seven nights a week). They trimmed their menu way back a couple years back — too far back I’d say, losing some Hunan classics in the cull, like the sour beans or dried bamboo stir-fried with smoked Hunan bacon. What’s left are reliable standards like the green and red chili fish head, frog steamed in a bamboo tube, and cumin ribs.
It’s worth picking around the rest of the abbreviated menu, as there are still some surprises lurking there, like the ganguo chicken with ginger and preserved bamboo shots, the sweetened organic pumpkin in a stone, and the cold eggplant that comes in a mortar pestle for you to mash the chilies into the dish with.
Also, in terms of fish head: Guyi > Di Shui Dong.
2. Di Shui Dong
Get the: Crunchy pig’s ear in chili oil.
If Guyi represents the higher-end options on the spectrum of downtown Hunan food, Di Shui Dong is at the opposite pole. Folksy and rustic, with no-nonsense waitresses in patterned blue uniforms, it’s been a cheap Hunan filling station for more than a decade now. It gets a lot of “it used to be better”-isms from people in Shanghai, but when I went to check in last week, it was the same old Di Shui Dong I remember from 2005 and onward, and by 6.30pm, it was packed. Like Guyi, it often gets the lazy critique that it’s Hunan for foreigners (and Anthony Bourdain, who ate cumin ribs here for his TV show), but that’s quickly dispelled by a look around the dining room on any given night, and the 2,900+ reviews, in Chinese, on Dazhong Dianping. Is it mind-blowing? No. Is it like the food in Changsha? Not in my experience. Is it good? Like every Chinese restaurant, it depends on what you order. So, order the crunchy pig’s ear in chili oil but not the flavorless bang bang chicken; order the sour pickled beans stir-fried with Hunan bacon, not the sour pickled beans with ground pork; and order the cumin ribs, because no matter how many grumpy expats complain, they are still perfectly nice.
3. Spicy Moment
Get the: Eight-treasure duck.
Spicy Moment started as a hip, polished concrete restaurant on Wuyuan Lu with a hidden bar (still there) and has since spread into the shopping mall universe. The restaurants have dim lighting and nice décor — Hunan for a date — and they haven’t strayed too far from the cooking that made them popular in the first place.
One of those things is their take on the ubiquitous fish head, to which their twist is adding steamed frogs’ legs. They also do an eight-treasure duck with a cured, preserved duck, which doesn’t pop up on many Hunan menus, and a Hunan hongshao rou with squid. It’s perhaps not the most authentic Hunan out there, but then I’m not the most authentic Hunan person, so take that for what it’s worth.
4. Yu Li Xiang
Get the: The fish head; stir-fry beef.
Yu Li is the highest-rated Hunan restaurant on Dianping if you sort only by flavor, which is the best way to use the site. It also happens to be right in the center of downtown. So, is it the best Hunan restaurant in Shanghai? No, categorically not. But it is spicy as hell, full of 20-somethings inhaling fish heads, and a legitimate alternative in easy striking distance. At 48rmb, the fish head is a steal, even if it’s smaller than what you’d find at Guyi or other Hunan restaurants — it’s the same species of carp (which goes by many names, including my favorite: ‘fat head fish’). Yu Li Xiang split my friends. Some loved the food, and some described it as ‘rubbish’. I’m in the middle. Yu Li Xiang does perfectly acceptable and much spicier Hunan dishes than the Guyi / Di Shui Dong / Spicy Moments of this world, including a nice stir-fried beef with pickled peppers. How to explain the rating then? That’s a topic for another time but suffice it to say that most of this city’s best restaurants often rank in the middle of the pack on Dianping; and demographics skew the ratings.
5. Wan Xiang Du
Get the: Sweet potato starch noodles; black Changsha stinky tofu
I picked Wan Xiang Du because it had ‘kou wei’ dishes, a weird and vague way to describe cooking — like saying ‘flavorful dishes’ — which will immediately register with anyone who has been to Hunan. When I went to Changsha last year, last year, I had a hard time finding cumin ribs and fish heads, but every place that locals sent to me was swimming in ‘kou wei’ dishes. So, Wan Xiang Du held out the promise of authenticity, however slippery that concept may be, along with a 9.1 rating for flavor on Dianping, the highest rating there is for Hunan restaurants (it shares the honor with Yu Li Xiang and others).
I arrived early, as I like to do, to make sure I can get a table. The fancy dining room, made of marble, chandeliers, sofa seating and a stage, was empty. And it stayed that way for the next three hours. The menu, a real tome, was full of stickers marking down prices. Dishes that had been 128 were now 58; dishes that were 58 were 38; the 38 kuai dishes were 18. Once upon a time Wan Xiang Du had positioned itself as a luxury Hunan restaurant, where you could splash out on abalone stir-fried with green chilis, but the reality of its crappy, forlorn location on the second floor of a small retail annex in Gubei and, I’m guessing here, the crackdown on government spending, have not been kind to Wan Xiang Du.
Nonetheless, what the kitchen turned out for our table of four was impressive for several reasons. One, for how nuclear the leathery cured duck was. Two, for insisting on using Ningxiang pork, which is one of the four most famous varieties of pigs in China. Three for having black Changsha stinky tofu (even if it was not stinky at all) and tang you baba, which are like a fried tangyuan soaking in caramel syrup. Four, for elevating rustic sweet potato starch noodles into one of the evening’s best dishes by braising it in a rich, yellow chicken stock with chilies. And five, for just generally having a menu that is full of unique dishes not found in most Hunan restaurants. Other standouts include the steamed Ningxiang pork belly with preserved vegetables (hua zhu kourou); the organic green chilies that were de-seeded, blistered and tossed with garlic and preserved pork, which felt almost Basque or Spanish in origin; and Wan Xiang Du’s attempt at creating a farm-to-table supply chain, with their own farm in the Hunan countryside.
And what about those kou wei dishes? It turns there is only one, a kou wei snake for about 600rmb, and I couldn’t be bothered. Would I go back? No. It’s Gubei and I’m myopic. Would I go once, for a fresh take on what a Hunan menu in Shanghai can be? Certainly.
Photos by Brandon McGhee, Sheila Zhao and Chris St. Cavish