Cha canting food = Hong Kong diner food that mashes up Cantonese, British, Portuguese, and other cuisines and is exactly what you want to eat at 2am, 3am, and maybe 5:30am, and although only Bi Feng Tang is on Eleme that late, their cha shao fan and milk tea does the trick.
Good cha cantings are the best.
And for cha cantings in Shanghai, these are The Big Four: Cha's, whose subway tiles, carefully sourced decorations, and music capture the vibe perfectly; the 24/7 Bi Feng Tang, which is cheap and passable; Xinwang, which tastes better than Bi Feng Tang (next door) but closes earlier now; and Tsui Wah, which isn't as good as Cha's but works better for extended afternoon sessions. There are other minor players, but these are The Big Four. They all have their strengths.
Less discussed is Molokai, which looks nothing like a classic cha canting and deserves mention for a few reasons. First, they have brownie sundaes with Oreos and whipped cream. Second, all the food – from the chicken curry and brisket noodles to the salmon & egg muffin – is solid, with better ingredients than any of The Big Four. Third, it's a way nicer environment than any of The Big Four, and that's perfect for meetings and people who think Cha's is too real.
Molokai is kind of a gentrified cha canting (you can order Wagyu burgers and cocktails), and Shanghai has room for that. You can still get a legit pork chop rice, milk tea, and beef-ball soup. And they're all about good service. Just don't go after 11pm – they're closed.
The high ceilings, giant windows, and chandeliers are the first sign that the Dongbei Countryside Jiaozi Village across from Shanghai Sculpture Park is not a typical Dongbei restaurant.
Sure, they have the usuals: the smashed chicken; the jiaozi; the poetic menu translations ("burn all the meat", "to three fresh", "paste the spine"); and the aphrodisiac baijius infused with deer phalluses.
But Dongbei Jiaozi Village just tastes better than Shanghai's go-to Dongbei restaurant, Dongbei Four Seasons Jiaozi King. Higher-quality ingredients, less oil, similar price. The dishes are fresher and less sweet than the Dongbei at Huaihai and Huashan, and tower levels above the one on Xikang Lu.
Dongbei might be the most vegetarian-friendly Chinese cuisine, and Jiaozi Village's star dish involves no meat at all. Liang ban dongbei da dofu is just a mountain of cold tofu mixed with chili flakes, raw onion, and cilantro. Some say it looks like cottage cheese. You will crave it for weeks after your initiation, and it's only 16rmb.
On a Friday night, a crew of young kuaidi drivers with backward baseball caps dug into dry-pots of meats and vegetables, laughing and cheering with big bottles of Harbin beer. In a city where the price of a cocktail has leapt from 60rmb, to 80rmb, to 100rmb, to 130rmb in just a few years, Dongbei restaurants remain one of the few places where anyone can have a feast for well under 100rmb. Dongbei food: a rare constant in the city.
(They do lose one star for still using plastic-wrapped plates and cups, which everyone still washes with tea anyway. Next year, maybe.)
If Yi Dian Dian is Milk tea V3.0, Coco is 2.0, and that sketchy shop down the alley from Giraffe English is V.1, then LELECHA and its imitators are the slick new V4.0.
Milk Tea! Now with… Real Whole Milk! Stunning GIF design on WeChat! Slow-Cooked Pearls!
LELECHA grew up fast in the culture of streetwear and wanghongs. They don't just do drinks. They also release limited edition snacks like crayfish hotdogs, then drop WeChat articles about them that look better than most new cartoons on TV. And at least one shop, they have furniture shaped like dogs.
The catch? Their drinks are actually really good.
Their signature cup is the Dirty Brown Sugar. Basically just a big cup of whole milk, soft, slow-cooked pearls, cream, and real brown sugar – not syrup. And a bit of cream on top. (There's no actual tea). The warm brown sugar oozes slowly into the cold milk. Everyone is doing brown-sugar milk drinks this fall, and LELECHA is queen.
And like Supreme, the drops continue, many of them looking like 6ix 9ine's hair. Cherry Cheese. Dirty Matcha. Strawberry Lulu. Will some disappoint? Probably. Do they already have 17 shops around town, seemingly overnight? Yes.
What does milk tea 5.0 look like?
Even in Shanghai, some places never change. And sometimes, to find really old SmartShanghai articles, you need to use web search.
So last month when I was lost on Xiangyang Lu at 2am trying to remember the address of a ma la tang place I swore I read about in an article written by Dada-founder Michael O in 2008, I hit Google and sure enough, the SmartShanghai listing came up.
The article was real, and amazingly, Chuan Chuan Xiang Ma La Tang is still open and just as good as back in 2008. Same peanut sauce. Same soup that tastes better than any other mala tang. Same orange walls and yellow baskets. Same neighbourhood vibes and friendly aunties. Same big jars of huajiao fen on the table.
I've returned four times in the last month. It's always just as good.
Ma La Tang is one of the best Chinese foods, but most ma la tang shops have cheap salty broth and / or cheap ingredients, or good ingredients and corporate vibes. Chuan Chuan is the ultra-rare ma la tang that tastes good and has that local restaurant charm. They actually serve a bunch of other dishes like pork chops and noodles, though I always just fill up on ma la tang for like 24rmb.
Cheers to another 20 years in the game!
Tips: Always ask for peanut sauce. They only have Snow beer, but don't seem to mind if you low-key bring your own Asahi from the Family Mart Across the street.
There's a cave of precious lamb skewers and mantou on Yunnan Lu. Wanna explore? Just look for the Transformer statue and the blue lights.
And this is the one time where a giant Transformer statue makes sense, because once you walk downstairs into a cave that looks like The Discovery Channel and a lower-budget Ultraviolet did a pop-up in The Shelter, you have officially left the future city. That's the whole concept of 很久以前 ("A Long Time Ago"). You chill in a booth and grill skewers of high-quality lamb from Inner Mongolia, drink beer, shout across the table, listen to trancey EDM / trap, read the cave-writings on the wall, and space out on visuals that look like very good screen-savers. Just like back in the day.
You will also receive a can of rare air from Inner Mongolia. You may take your can home. Enjoy it.
Even without all of this beauty, the place would still warrant a return. The lamb skewers are so fresh that they come with no seasoning by default (you can dip them in spices). The vegetable dishes and scallops all have layers and layers of flavor. The draft beer is… flat. Get the bottled beer. They have a decent selection.
Modern humans are well aware of this place's quality. This branch of "A Long Time Ago" has almost 12,000 reviews on Dianping with a 4.5 star average. At midnight on a recent Tuesday, the place was packed. When a table of party-people started smoking, the LCD screens switched from images of baby lambs to a skull made of smoke, and an announcement over the speakers cut through the dozens of conversations, clinking glasses, and rolling dice. "Smoking is bad for everyone's health. Please go outside and smoke." The guilty parties walked out looking ashamed just as we realized our waitress forgot our dessert for the second time.
Just like back in the day.
"This is basically like wandering around some rich person's massive house for hours and hours", said one friend the first time they went to Qianshen.
For two years, I've gone to New Star at least once a month to disconnect and detox. But now I've found a better bathhouse.
On my first visit to Qianshen (Shallow Deep), north of Zhongshan Park in underrated Putuo District, I stayed for eight hours. That's enough time to explore the seven floors of baths, pools, hot-stone rooms, oxygen rooms, pass-out-in-front-of-a-TV-watching-action-movies rooms, a gym, a game room with a pool table, a hotpot restaurant, and one of the nicest rooftops in Puxi, where you can lay on pillows under the stars, order BBQ, and sip cocktails and draft beer.
The vibe is low-key and quiet, the language of choice is Shanghainese, and the preferred TV show is overwhelmingly World of Dance, which you can watch on a ten meter screen while jumping from bath to bath under thatched roofs and calming blue lights. Around the bath and sauna area are five-star hotel level "rain showers", a fruit bar, ponds of lucky-fish, sculptures, and four kinds of tea.
The hotpot restaurant is decent enough. The food isn't even Haidilao level, but they don't charge a fee for the pot. So you can fill up on vegetables, a plate of lamb, and cold dishes for about 100rmb. Avoid the jiaozi.
Been to New Star? Here's where Qianshen is better. First, everything is noticeably cleaner. You have to wear sandals everywhere. The staff are younger and nicer. Shampoos and soaps are higher quality, as are the showerheads. All the lights are warmer. The boss really seems to care about details. The pools stay open 24 hours a day. There are no children running around. The crowd is white-collar, middle-aged, and quieter (let's keep this place chill). And as a foreigner, they won't kick you out until 2am. They even have hotel rooms with private pools starting around 500rmb a night.
Unfortunately, unlike New Star, they don't enforce a no-phones rule in the naked area. Why does anyone need to bring a phone into a hot tub?
There are probably much nicer bathhouses in Shanghai, with silk robes, free-flow hairy crabs and Maotai, and jade bathtubs filled with Fiji water. I'm not ready for that level yet. For now, Qianshen is perfect.
Here's three qualities you won't find in most Chinese restaurants: outdoor seating, a long beer list, and music.
Benzhen, on the third floor of Hubin Dao mall near Xintiandi, has all three of those while serving some of the best upscale Sichuan in the city. The pepper and peppercorn flavors hit harder here than at Mayura, that Tiffany-blue, Sichuanese / Shanghainese peacock around the corner. And thankfully, Benzhen forgoes the 90's banquet-hall wedding vibes you'll find at Yuxin, that elder king of Huangpu Qu Sichuan Restaurants.
Here, they focus on pure Sichuan flavors as well as one could in a commercially viable Shanghai endeavor. A dozen varieties of peppers proudly sit on display by the entrance. The beef cuts in the shui zhu niu rou are way higher quality than anyone would expect. The mapo dofu tastes like grandma actually made it. No hollow Instagram-bait here - just good food.
Outside of the warmly lit dining room, a 3rd floor patio overlooks trees, skyline, and a park full of dogs and their humans. On a recent evening, a couple sat watching a Saint Bernard down there try unsuccessfully to make friends with several small breed dogs while a bass-heavy speaker drowned out the screams of an unruly toddler a few booths away. After the sun set, a giant screen tumbled down to display karaoke videos by Drake, BlocBoy JB, and Bruno Mars. Some would call that overstimulation. Others call that a party. Keeping folks here late seems like part of Benzhen's model. They have at least five pages of beers, including The World's Strongest Beer, Snake Venom, for 1480rmb per bottle, and plenty of wine and cocktails.
This is Sichuan cuisine refracted through the glass and water of Xintiandi. Call it Mall Food 4.0. Embrace it.
SmartReviews is SmartShanghai’s crack squad of amateur reviewers, eating their way around the city and writing about it. They have been chosen from a large pool of applicants and given a set of strict guidelines to follow to make sure their reviews are honest, informed and fair to both potential customers and the restaurants themselves.