Hairy crabs are a real pain in the ass. They're mostly shell, more often than not the meat is flabby or muddy tasting, and they don't have the element of danger that gives something like a king crab that extra boost. No one is going to make Deadliest Catch: Yangcheng Lake
. It's like four feet deep.
Not being Shanghainese, I don't get anything out of the tedious extraction process. The hairy crabs I've enjoyed the most, on the edge of Yangcheng Lake, escaped intact but for the roe, which is fantastic. The velvety orange stuff is a concentrated shot of the crustacean, a kindred spirit of sea urchin, which the Japanese favor so much. I've got better things to do than frustrate myself over three grams of river crab meat. Eating sandwiches, for one.
It's a Shanghainese maxim that the best part of the hairy crab is grappling with the little bastard to get to its meat, but I sense some cracks. I suspect there's a portion of the Shanghainese population who, as soon as they are financially comfortable, sympathize with me. They go to fancy crab banquets, where the meat has already been separated from the shell and gets dished up in multiple courses, saving them the hassle. Those banquets usually include one whole crab, but that's just for looks.
How do I know this? Xinguang Jiu Jia
. They're something of a Shanghai institution by now, having started back in 1991 -- just about the time the first newly-rich businessmen started to emerge. After the Shanghainese are done telling you that places who pick the meat are for foreigners and other people who don't know any better, a bunch of them come here.
Xinguang is a hairy crab restaurant, and basically only a hairy crab restaurant, and they pick the meat from all of their Yangcheng Lake crabs. No hair, no sharp legs, no shell. It's surprising how much better hairy crabs are after you've removed the obstacle of actually eating a hairy crab.
That's what Xinguang does.
It feels like a secret, Xinguang, though that's far from the truth. The original location is an unassuming storefront just north of People's Square, squeezed between an anonymous clothing storefront and a crayfish place, and the dining rooms on floors two and three are cramped and slightly shabby. They're done up in the polished replica-wood that gets landlords off, and if not for a couple of folding screens, you'd realize how close you are to the table next to you. The only concession is a white tablecloth. But the overall effect is endearing. The Tianjin Lu store, as opposed to the two Xinguang branches in fancy hotels, is honest. They do crabs. The rest is just so much show. (The service is, however, excellent: knowledgeable, courteous, informative.)
Xinguang imposes a minimum charge to keep out the riff-raff