Announcing your favorite burger in Shanghai is always going to be a controversial exercise, but for me, Must Grill is it. It doesn't appear in the conversation enough. It all comes down to the quality of the ingredients - the fresh, chewy, perfectly cooked patty, the house-made milk buns and the attention-to-detail toppings. The bacon and the pulled pork they throw on the American Dream, or the fried ball of Goat’s Cheese on top of the Baa Baa, have had thought put into them.
Which is funny, because it’s not strictly a burger joint. It’s more of a mid-range French grill, with a lot of steak and other meats on the menu alongside some French classics and a pretty decent wine list (if I’m not mistaken, at least one French wine importer owns a stake - always good for pricing).
The place in general is a pleasant mid-range Euro-style bistro, with a great terrace for summer and an ambience that sits at the right intersection of casual and classy. Good for group meals, good for a date. Great service too, especially if the French manager is around, which he usually is.
But the burgers are what keep me coming back. Each one will set you back pretty much RMB 100. Hardly a steal - what you need to do is head there on Tuesday, where all burgers are buy-one-get-one-free, and when the place is seemingly at its busiest. It’s my pick for best burger deal in town. If you live or work in the area they do a lunch set, too, starting at RMB 88 for two courses. Again not cheap, but everything is on point - the chicken salad starter is great - and you’ll leave stuffed.
The restaurant itself is hidden from the street and so doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic, which means it’s rarely packed. Crowd is predominantly French, often a mix of young professionals there for the b1g1 burgers and well-heeled shirt-and-tie expats enjoying a few bottles of wine and a three-course meal. Whether you’re trying to get some affordable but quality Western food and wine or just want to find your new favorite meat-in-a-bun, it’s worth the trip.
Once you’ve learnt to love Korean food, it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to crave. Good kimchi hits a spot that not many foods do. And Korean BBQ, good as it is, is kind of a big, boozy, occasion-type meal. You don’t eat it all the time. Props to places like Hanguo Chufang, then, diligently pumping out Korean comfort food that hits all the right notes on flavor, at prices you actually can justify every week.
The space is casual and friendly, a little cramped, spread over small second-and-third-floor dining areas. You pass a window looking into the kitchen on the way up, and are greeted welcoming yells from the waitstaff and chefs.
I go here for the rice bowls when I need a big, filling lunch. They range from standard bibimbap, which is just OK – they skip the runny egg, which feels like a travesty to me – to much tastier versions like beef bulgogi and spicy kimchi pork, my personal go-to.
You couldn’t really call these things totally authentic – they use that weird purple rice, which I don’t recall eating in Korea - but man, are they satisfying. The kimchi is funky and pungent, they don’t skimp on meat, and the flavors are all there. The pots stay piping hot for the whole meal, crisping up the rice on the bottom and making it a perfect winter warmer. They give you a spicy, bright red gochujang sauce to stir in as well. You’ll be sweating after. Some people struggle to finish the bowl; I’m not one of those people, but I’m definitely full after.
At between RMB 35 to RMB 45 – including free rounds of black beans, kimchi, and other Korean pickles to start – they’re great value too. Love those freebies, which roate depending on when you visit. On a recent visit I got a really tasty pumpkin soup.
These things are easily enough for a meal for one, but to supplement there are the usual suspects - think serviceable Korean fried chicken, satisfying seafood and kimchi pajeon, Korean stews. Good for grabbing if you’re there for dinner or going as a small group.
In all, this spot is a simple, fuss-free way to fill up on hearty and warming fare and get your Korean flavor fix. Oten for not much over RMB 50 a head.
Song Fa is a Singaporean chain that specializes in Bak Kut Teh, a complex pork rib soup that has roots, I believe, in the Chinese communities in that country and Malaysia. At Song Fa they do versions with various parts of the pig, the classic being the ribs. They also serve up the broth as the basis of a bowl of noodles. Any of these will set you back somewhere between RMB 55 and RMB 70.
The broth is soothing, rich, and delicious, packing all the richness that comes from having gotten to know the bones of a pig very well. It also packs a massive whack of pepper that startles on the first sip but really cuts through that aforementioned richness. It’s really well done. If you’re a couple, you can split a couple of soup dishes with some sides. The fried tofu, pictured, is particularly tasty. The broth tastes great spooned over a bowl of rice, too.
What takes it over the finishing line is that they do free refills of that soup. Whether you’ve ordered the pork rib soup or just a bowl of noodles, the wait staff are constantly circling with hot kettles of the stuff ready to be added to your bowl. I get excited about free refills of anything. When it’s delicious pork rib soup, then I’m guaranteed to be almost inappropriately pleased.
Atmosphere is – mall. Not what you come for. Service is great.
Food-wise, there are some quibbles. The meat clearly hasn’t spent quite the ideal time cooking – it tastes great and is tender enough but doesn’t fall off the bone the way you would hope. Also, when I asked a Singaporean friend about Song Fa she said that they’re a respected chain, but also mentioned some elements – mostly tasty-sounding condiments – that I didn’t see at this Shanghai outpost. Those are minor issues to me though. All in all, it’s a great place to get a well-priced, very soothing meal in this part of town.
Folkjar is a restaurant chain (Chinese name Shan Jian Tang / 山间堂) that focuses on the dishes and soups of Jiangxi province. This is a cuisine that doesn’t get that much love in Shanghai – it’s not one of the “eight greats”. So, for the uninitiated, it’s known for spiciness and fermented funkiness, not totally dissimilar from the cuisine of neighboring Hunan. They’re also known for their “Nanchang Jar” meat soups, which are the specialty here.
This is perfect winter food. We went for one big jar of soup and three dishes, which all turned out to be great supporting players; meltingly tender eggplant and long beans, fried tofu laced with chili in a rich gravy-like sauce, and slippery fried noodles. It’s all pleasantly rich and pungent, packing some unique flavors. It was also too much food for less than RMB 100 per head.
That soup though. Their large bowl of bamboo and duck soup might taste a little flat at first, but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded by a broth that gets richer and richer the deeper you go, collecting more and more tiny pieces of duck meat and rendered fat. They aren’t stingy with the meat either, offering plenty of hefty chunks. Like real, boneless chunks. Jiangxi is still on my list of places to visit, so I can’t really speak to the authenticity here, but these bowls pack a whole lot of comforting warmth and a whole lot of flavor.
Being a chain, you do get that vaguely corporate vibe; low on the atmosphere and overly cutesy, pretty high on good service and professionalism. Serviceable; fine. And yet, by making something as simple and unvarnished as a hearty duck soup that’ll keep you warm for hours afterward, they’ve managed something pretty homey. Visit while it’s still cold out.
Some people hate hotpot, seeing it as a waste of good ingredients and a uniform experience in which everything just tastes like your dipping sauce. Others, like me, see it for what it is; a meal in which both the lip-tingling, bowel-shattering food and the act of dining itself are equal end goals. It’s participatory, communal, an occasion in and of itself like Korean BBQ or fondue. Great fun when you’re drunk.
The best hot-pot places, obviously, are the ones where the food isn’t just an afterthought. Lao Wang is one such spot. It’s difers from common go-to Hai Di Lao by shedding the over-the-top service for a more refined vibe and gentle décor (the wait staff are still on point, though). You also get higher-quality ingredients – just try the beef balls here and tell me that’s not the case. That all comes for a slightly higher price point, but you’re still spending comfortably less than a RMB 200 a head.
The main selling point here is the unique chicken and pork tripe cooking broth, basically an intensely peppery and rich chicken soup. This was a revelation to me on my first visit. Once it’s heated up, the first “course” of your meal is a bowl of this, spooned out by a waiter. Then you help yourself to the chicken and piggie bits floating around in there before getting to cooking your vegetables, sliced meat, tofu, and whatever else you like. After the broth, it’s the aforementioned quality of these ingredients that take Lao Wang over the line and make it a truly top-tier hotpot joint.
As a glutton for punishment, I like the pot split half/half between a standard, numbing, Sichuan-style spicy broth and the signature chicken elixir. I’m also very partial to the Cantonese-style crispy claypot rice, mixed table-side with cured meats and greens. It’s a great, flavor-heavy way to add a bit of bulk to the meal.
The place gets busy, especially on weekends, but it’s worth the wait and manages to keep hold of its pleasant atmosphere even when things get convivial. Next time you’re looking for a hotpot place, this should be top of your list.
(Also, everything only tastes of the dipping sauce if you don’t mix your dipping sauce right. To step your game up all you need to do is keep a light touch and go easy on the peanut sauce).
La Vite is the kind of low-key spot that you can miss, despite living in Shanghai for years, before discovering it and kicking yourself for being late to the party. It’s a small, homey, lived-in neighborhood Italian restaurant that feels at once welcoming and deeply real. With food that will instantly have you “ahh”-ing and settling into your seat for a long, comfortable evening.
It’s good for casual dinners with small groups, though you’d probably need to reserve. More than that the intimate atmosphere makes it eminently date-worthy, too – the cozy kind, not the fancy kind. You’ll be overhearing pieces of the next table’s conversations, and they’ll be overhearing yours. But that’s part of the charm. Also, prices are all reasonable. Two of you can leave, full and with a couple of glasses of wine in you each, for under RMB 500.
Dishes are simple, hearty Italian comfort food, things like porchetta (rich, indulgent pork belly), burrata, blue cheese gnocchi, roasted porcini and vegetables. Meat and cheese boards. There’s a full menu of pizzas as well, proper pizzas, which will usually set you back about RMB 79 each.
Plates are big; it all feels designed to be shared. Between two, two dishes and a pizza are enough to leave you feeling good and satisfied. Wines are decent and fairly priced too, with glasses starting at around RMB 40 and a carafe going for around RMB 130.
So great food, great value, and a great atmosphere. Sometimes there isn’t much more to it than that. You should go to La Vite.
Ying (full name Ying Ying’s Private Kitchen) is a small, low-key spot serving up the central-Asian flavors of Xinjiang. It’s a nifty space, sharply decorated with pleasant colors and tones, with seating for about 20. It’s a cozy dining room-style vibe that’s a cool, casual alternative to the more high-end and/or kitschy Xinjiang places around town. Great for a weekday lunch or chill dinner.
The menu sets Ying apart as well, with a couple of pages devoted to something you don’t see too much in Shanghai – Xinjiang noodles. They are mostly fried rice noodles with additions like chicken or beef, pickled vegetables, and mushrooms. I go for chicken, pickled cabbage and mushroom bowl, which also comes with a sprinkling of peanuts.
They’re big portions that pack a serious amount of flavor, and are totally of a piece with the cumin and chili-rich tones of typical Xinjiang fare. They’re pretty heavy on the oil and seasonings and they don’t mess around with chili either, so bear that in mind when they ask you how spicy you’d like yours. When you mix it all up it just becomes this monstrous mian machine combining heat, toothsome noodles and a real depth of flavor. They’ll make you sweat.
I can’t speak to how authentically Xinjiang-ese(?) these things are, but seriously, this is a killer bowl of noodles. They generally go for between RMB 38 and RMB 45.
Along with those, Ying serves up a menu of well-executed Xinjiang staples like a da pan ji and friend lamb and bread, which is just as rich and indulgent and delicious as it sounds if you can handle the salt and oil. I can. Vegetable options are pretty slim and consist of things like sautéed cabbage, though the fried zucchini is recommended as a foil to all the richness. It comes in a light, tomato-based sauce with just a hint of chili. Prices on those are all pretty reasonable. Three standard dishes are enough for two people, and won’t total much more than RMB 100. The da pan ji is huge.
Technically Ying has been around for a little while – it originally opened as Jiang more than a year ago, before shuttering for months and recently reopening with the same menu, the same décor, and a new owner. I really, really hope it stays. It’s always busy, so that bodes well. As long as it’s around, it’s a great new option for Xinjiang when you’re in this part of town and, I’d argue, worth a trip when you’re not.
Way back when, in the days before anyone could list their ten favorites sandwiches in Shanghai before running out of options, there was NYC Deli. They’ve been flying the flag for proper American-style sandwiches for, I'm told, more than a decade, and yet until recently I’d never made it down there. A couple of fellow culinary degenerates I know have been recommending them to me for some time. Recently, when I found myself on a dark side of town I rarely venture to (east of People’s Square), I gave in to peer pressure.
Prices are good. Sandwiches come with coleslaw and are helpfully categorized into “Regular” (100g of meat, in the RMB 45 range), “Mega” (160g of meat, mid-RMB 50s), and “Monsta” (220g of meat, in the RMB 60s). They also do a killer combo deal, which includes a regular sandwich along with a drink, a cookie, soup or chili, potato chips and coleslaw for only RMB 68.
If you want to grab a heavy, legit, guilty pleasure-style sandwich for such a friendly price point, it’s difficult to think of anywhere better.
On a couple of recent visits, favorites have been the Philly Cheesesteak and the Turkey Reuben. These things are gut-busters, rightly lacking in any finesse but with just enough attention to detail. The Philly Cheesesteak wouldn’t be half as good if they didn’t drop just the right amount of black pepper in the cheese sauce, for example. They’re bad news and they know it, the kind of sandwiches that make you pause between bites to sigh and admire them with a strange mixture of longing and fear.
I might have physically visited, but delivery is definitely the focus here. That’s reflected in the space – it’s dingy as hell. Old media clippings about the restaurant from expat magazines you’ve never heard of (Shanghai Mojo?) and old Yankees trading cards, discolored with age, are pinned on the walls. There’s virtually no space for seating. Even the deli’s little corner of the city feels forgotten; just off the highway, hidden behind scaffolding, filled with old storefronts that have seen better days.
It’s kind of the perfect environment for eating no-frills sandwiches like these. I dig it, but it’s not for everyone, and it’s hardly an atmosphere that’s worth a special trip. Fortunately, delivery is free within 3km and RMB 15 over that, if you contact them directly, and you can find them on Eleme.
Tokyo House sits in the Jing’an bar and restaurant nexus of Wuding Road and Yanping Road, occupying an unassuming Japanese-style store-front just off the main strip. It’s a go-to for a lot of people working in the area for its cheap sushi lunch sets. Go at peak hours and you will be waiting for a table - rock up, grab a number scrawled on a piece of paper, and wait to be called. It always seems to be busy. Oh, and they only take cash.
For all that hassle, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best value lunch-sets in the area and some seriously tasty sushi rolls and nigiri. It’s best suited for groups of four or less, ideally a weekday lunch or casual dinner. There are a couple of small private rooms at the back, but the place gets busy, and you might be sharing table or bar space with strangers.
RMB 45 gets you nine pieces of sushi and a bowl of udon soup noodles laced with sliced pork, seaweed and grated carrot (both pictured). The noodles are fine, the meat broth good for a cold day, but they’re pretty much filler. The sushi rolls are maddeningly addictive, packed with umami flavors that, though perhaps not ones that you’d find in an actual Tokyo house, clearly keep the Jing’an office hordes coming back. Trust me, I’m one of them. It’s not the best sushi in the world, but it’s A-OK, and the price more than justifies it.
That’s Set A, and it’s a steal. Even better, they do that particular set during dinner service, too. Other sets combine various combinations of sushi with noodles and / or grilled fish, so there’s room for finding your own go-to. I haven’t ventured much into the sizeable a la carte menu of classic Japanese small plates, but plenty of tables seem to. Lots of grilled meats, general seafood, and an extensive menu of of sushi options that will generally set you back RMB 10 to RMB 20 for one or two pieces.
In order to keep a clear conscience, I have to end this review with a caveat. The one time I dined here with a Japanese friend, she called out the udon as probably frozen and described the sushi as “interesting”. She wasn’t into it. So, don’t come here for authenticity. Come for the great deals and the deliciousness of those sushi rolls. Authenticity is overrated.
Wu Guan Tang is a picturesque vegetarian restaurant built into a lane house on Xinhua Lu. It has atmosphere; it’s pleasant and refined, with good service, a tranquil environment and décor that’s reminiscent of a classical tea house. Casual enough for a dinner with friends but just refined enough for something slightly more high stakes, like a date or something more formal. It’d be good to take any visiting veggie out-of-towners. I’ve also heard that they have a killer rooftop patio, but the November weather prevented us from exploring. Will be back to try that.
They do set meals for different sized groups, which is a good option if you’re looking to sample a few of the highlights. Prices are slightly higher than your average neighborhood Chinese spot, but not by much. Three of us ordered the set dinner for two and threw some extra dishes on top, and it came out to RMB 100 a piece.
Highlights include okra that arrives slathered with a little chili alongside a rich, sour and spicy dip. Potato comes baked, sliced and dripping with butter, a testament to the fact that vegetarian food can clog your arteries just as nicely as any meat dish if you let it. Sides like pickled radish and cold tofu provide decent, if not thrilling accompaniments. The set provides a deep range of flavors, and it’s clear that ingredients are high-quality and treated with care.
If I had to make a complaint, it’s that some of the dishes are a little under-seasoned. This is clearly a restaurant with health on its mind, and it leads to the kitchen being a little shy with the salt shaker. A dish of fried rice noodles with peanuts, pickles and chilies, for example, lacks the heat and punch that it should have, with or without meat. The same goes for their version of mapo tofu.
In all it’s a minor complaint though, and perhaps it really does make the food here a little easier on the stomach. Wu Guan Tang feels like it would definitely be a good spot for vegetarians looking for something more original than fake meat and basic veggie versions of staple dishes. Crucially, it’s also just about interesting enough to be worth a visit from dedicated carnivores looking for something new.
(Side note – confusingly, Wu Guan Tang shares space with Frankie’s Kitchen, a couple doors down. They might usher you down there to “check our neighbor” if the original is full, but it’s the same restaurant. Frankie’s is the one pictured).
Yunnan food is seemingly one of Shanghai’s favorites, but it's mostly represented by a few heavy-hitting perennial favorites. In & Out does the inevitable and takes this South Western cuisine into a mall, specifically the Hubin Dao complex not far from Xintiandi. It’s light on vibes, but big on flavor.
The place falls prey to some of the problems that many new mall restaurants do. It’s nicely decorated but lacking in atmosphere. It has good service but felt a little empty during dinner (I’m guessing they stay afloat on the lunch crowd). If you’re going for a date, you’d be able to find places with more atmosphere. But hey, some of these same attributes make it pretty ideal for big groups. It’s a pleasant, spacious dining room and, this Saturday, they accommodated around 16 of us with no problem at all.
Thankfully, the food alone is worth going for. It’s full of the bold flavors that this cuisine is known for, without any of the watering down for local or Western palates that seems to happen at other more high-end Yunnan spots. The plates here pack lots of citrus and mint, with plenty of pickles and funky, fermented stuff providing the backbone. They also aren’t shy with the chili either, so it’s worth inquiring about the heat level of some of these dishes if you aren’t a spice junky.
Winners include cubes of fried tofu slathered in a spicy sauce and simple stir-fried tofu skin with ham, egg and tomato. Number one was probably the fried goat’s cheese, a Yunnan resto staple, which gets elevated here with the addition of sliced, intensely salty ham and a tiny lump of fermented tofu for you to season at will. It’s great. Shout out to the cold sliced beef, too, wrapped around mint leaves and covered in chili and chopped peanuts.
Other dishes don’t quite match these highs, but they’re consistent, with no real misses and a whole lot of character.
It’s not as cheap, cheerful or cozy as Changning staple Lotus Eatery, though some dishes here arguably surpass their direct equivalents there. It’s also more welcoming and reasonably priced than the more buttoned-down, atmosphereic, and laowai-friendly Lost Heaven. To me, it fills a nice middle ground. It’s a worthy addition to the Shanghai Yunnan-restaurant canon, and worth seeking out if you’re looking to dine in a big group or simply want to try something new.
Some restaurants become clichés for a reason. Dongbei Four Seasons Dumpling King is one such restaurant, with numerous outposts around town that thoroughly dominate the cuisine of North East China in Shanghai. It’s familiar to most anyone who’s been here more than a year or two.
Though all branches are pretty much similar, the Jing’an branch is one of the livelier and more atmospheric outposts. It’s fine for small, casual dinners but even better for big group gatherings, where you can order a huge variety of dishes, fill up on hearty, cheap eats and get merry on cheap Chinese beers (or your own booze; there isn’t any corkage fee and you’re free to bring in your own). For these reasons it gets picked a lot as a pre-game spot before a night out, as well as for occasions like birthdays and leaving do’s. You can leave very full for around RMB 50 a head, sometimes less.
Don’t expect great service, but do expect honest, homey Chinese cooking. The menu is dominated by carbs, meat and jiaozi (dumplings) but with enough vegetable options to keep anyone of that persuasion happy (they have some good meat-free dumplings, like zucchini and egg, too). Generally you won't fine much chilli, with flavors focused more on the liberal use of soy sauce, garlic, and vinegar.
The food might not look like much, but highlights are numerous. The shou si ji (“hand torn chicken”) is a whole bird smushed flat and fried so that it’s crispy on the outside and remarkably tender on the inside, falling off the bone. The di san xian, stir-fried chunks of eggplant, green bell pepper, and potato, is a must-order. Their numerous cold tofu and vegetable dishes are nice starters and/or palate cleansers too. And, finally, they do a mean line in fried meat. Gou bao rou, listed as “sweet and sour pork”, are monstrous cutlets of battered, deep-fried pork covered in a sweet, sticky sauce. The salt and pepper “ribs”, boneless fingers of battered fried pork, are dangerously addictive, liberally laced with salt, pepper, and presumably some sort of powerful narcotic.
The setting is as fuss-free as the food and thoroughly local, with grumpy waitresses, private banquet rooms, the clatter and bang of a busy kitchen and the odd picture of Mao. It’s noisy and welcoming, a place that dishes up comfort food for Shanghai lifers while being an approachable entry-point for newbies and out-of-towners. Try it, and you’ll probably find that your visit ends up being the first of many.
Siu Loon Fung has a couple of outposts around town delivering unfussy, uncomplicated Hong Kong-style cooking. This is a Chinese cuisine that isn’t too well represented on the low-end of Shanghai dining, so this place’s authentic flavors and wallet-friendly pricing – with dishes rarely breaking the RMB 50 mark – make it well worth a mention.
It’s crowded, colorful and can get a little loud, with a wide-ranging menu. All of this make it most ideal for a quick solo lunch or snack, as well as for less hurried small groups who can split a few dishes. The atmosphere feels like that of an authentic, gritty Hong Kong diner, with a lot of cultural nods in the décor like movie posters, classic HK street signs and even an old-school tape deck, as well as a Cantonese pop soundtrack on the stereo. It’s a fun place.
The cheap and cheerful city vibes are reflected in the food too. Think roast duck over rice, pineapple buns and fried instant noodles rather than dim sum, opulence and afternoon tea.
It’s no-frills, then, with a cooking style that is basic but hits all the right sweet-and-salty notes that this food should. Personal go-to’s are their roast meats over rice - Roast Duck (RMB 39) and BBQ Pork (RMB 42), both pictured. It’s these that you’ll see hanging behind a window near the entrance, tempting you further in. The duck leg tends a little towards the dry, but it’s made up for by the succulent breast meat. It’s hard to say much about meat over rice except that it tastes really, really good and makes for an ideal fuss-free fill-up. Same goes for the fried instant noodles and fatty beef in XO Sauce (RMB 42), also pictured.
Beyond that, the menu is vast, serving everything from simple veggie stir-fries to myriad variations on fried noodles and a few classic Canto favorites – pineapple buns, char siu pork buns and the like (both RMB 10). They do proper milk tea, too, which is a nice touch.
In all, it’s a great spot to hit up if you’re craving these flavors but don’t feel like anything fancy, or just want to grab a simple lunch in a place with a bit of atmosphere.
Right by Zhongshan Park, hiding in plain sight, is one of the best Japanese restaurants in downtown Shanghai. This is Toriyasu (or Niao An in Chinese), focusing on Japanese-style grilling and skewers.
Hidden away behind an unmarked wooden front, the atmosphere is definitely at least half of the appeal. Ducking in through the tiny door immediately feels like getting in on a great secret. You’ll be greeted by the smell of burning charcoal, rushed waitresses and the loud chatter of 30 or 40 people having a really good time. It’s a mix of locals, laowais and Japanese parties enjoying what I assume is a taste of home, brought together by ice cold Asahis and sake. Literally brought together - you’ll probably be sharing tables with these strangers and sitting close enough to get to know them a little. Embrace it.
It’s great for small to large groups looking for an atmospheric, lively dinner. But the intimate, lively and authentic setting make it a good spot for a date too, if you’re both down for something different and don’t mind your neighbors at the table overhearing you conversation.
Either way, make reservations, especially if you’re going on a Friday or Saturday. Can’t stress that enough. They have a habit of not answering their phone, but keep trying. Expect to spend between RMB 150 and RMB 200 a person including a beer or two, unless you start running up a sake bill.
So, the food. Some ala carte dishes, particularly the teriyaki chicken, fried kimchi and exemplary Japanese-style fried chicken – I don’t know how they get the skin so crisp yet so light – are worth adding to your order. They help provide bulk. But the grill is where the real action is. Every part of the chicken – from skin to breast to liver – is cooked pretty much to perfection and served on a skewer. The whole grilled squid is killer. The grilled bell peppers are perfectly seasoned.
It’s the kind of cooking that’s small, shareable and – crucially – the ideal complement to cold Japanese beer. The fact that you get to enjoy it in exactly the right atmosphere, in exactly the kind of surroundings that it feels designed to be eaten in, make it pretty much perfect.
On the perennially popular stretch of Wulumuqi Lu that hosts Eli Falafel, La Vite and the Avocado Lady, there’s a good amount of decent Chinese restaurants that a lot of people seem to pass by. Sichuan spot Yi Zhang Hong is one of them.
For fans of spiciness, Sichuan cooking, or just Chinese food in general it’s more than worth dipping in to. That’s especially true since, despite its reasonable prices and unassuming demeanor – it’s a relaxed, cozy space – it manages to answer a few of the criticisms that this famous cuisine most commonly faces. Its Sichuan food with a fresh pair of kicks, cleaned up just a little bit with a focused menu, a smidgen less oil and apparently no MSG. And it's all that while remaining unadulterated and plenty hot.
A good place to start is by splitting one of their “Griddle” dishes, a big dry-fried pot of chili, lotus root, celery and other goodies along with your choice of protein. These range from chicken to bullfrog to eel to pork intestine at RMB 78 to RMB 88. The diced, bone-in chicken is great, crispy and tender in all the right places, but the intestine might be even better. The generous sprinklings of chili and Sichuan pepper cover up the more offal-y notes of the organ, leaving behind just crisp skin and rich fat. It’s a real treat.
The mapo tofu (RMB 38) is one of the best I’ve had this side of Chengdu. It’s a standard rendition but it packs so much heat, pungency and flavor, flavor that seems to come from confident and well-executed seasoning rather than a simple barrage of oil and chili. Though there is of course a decent amount of those too.
Beyond that there are a number of classic Sichuan staples – cold chicken served in chili oil (RMB 38), pork wontons in a variety of spicy sauces (RMB 18), dry-fried green beans (RMB 28) – prepared as you’d recognize them with maybe just a touch more finesse. There are some more singular small plates too, of which soy sauce marinated and braised pork (RMB 38), though a bit pricy for a small plate, is worth a shout. It has those great earthy undertones that meat gets when its spent just the right amount of time sitting around getting funkier. Think of it like Sichuan prosciutto. Kind of.
On my last visit, four dishes between two came to just under RMB 100 a piece (admittedly with no drinks). Outside of chains like Spicy Joint that’s a good price for a Sichuan meal like this, with better cooking and a much nicer atmosphere.
Xime does Japanese comfort food with inventive twists in all the right places, in a laidback, stylish setting with decent pricing. Usually a great soundtrack, too. That makes it kind of unique given that downtown Shanghai’s Japanese places, as good as some of they are, tend to be either classic izakayas, all-you-can-eat teppanyaki black holes and performative, high-end sushi spots.
What really separates it is the menu, though. It goes deeper than sashimi – though they have that, too, at a great quality to price ratio – offering everything from hearty, shareable Japanese hotpot to soba and rice sets, udon noodles and more. They even do Japanese sandwiches filled with things like grilled mackerel and pork katsu.
My most recent visit was on a Monday night, when they do a killer buy-one-get-one deal on all their bowls of udon noodles. The original prices of these hover between the mid-50’s and mid 70’s, so you can get a big hearty bowl on the cheap and free up some wallet space to split something else between a party of two. I’d recommend the sesame salad, the proper name of which I unfortunately can’t remember (pictured).
I’m a big fan of the Beef Curry Udon (pictured). It’s a dish I tried when visiting Tokyo and I honestly don’t know why it isn’t more prevalent abroad. The version here is as good as the version I had there – rich curry broth, tender beef slices and toothsome noodles. It contains a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds and raisins, which do wonders for the texture of the bowl and add little bumps of sweetness. The menu is full of these nice little details that add a bit of depth to everything and remind you that this is a more modern, explorative kind of Japanese spot.
Another udon highlight – the chicken meatball version, which comes in a lighter broth with extra chewy pieces of tofu. It’s chicken noodle soup’s way hipper cousin. Order it on a cold evening.
That’s a round-up of some very specific dishes, but it gives you a good idea of what you’re going to get here. It’s quality stuff, hearty and familiar while still being interesting enough to get foodies talking over the table. In a chill environment, to boot. A neighborhood spot that’s worth travelling to even if it’s not in your neighborhood.
Also, when I sat down to eat last week they were playing Outkast’s ‘Spottieottiedopalicious”. That’s an extra point right there.
Thai food in Shanghai often misses the mark. It’s either marked up and served in a stuffy, overly fancy environment or it’s in a mall and tweaked to within an inch of its life to satisfy local palates. Fortunately, there’s at least one place to go for reasonably priced Thai food that just about manages to pack the cuisine’s authentic, legendary punch.
Qing Mai Heaven gets points for being no-frills. That’s on both the atmosphere and food fronts; it’s a tiny, brightly lit, six-table hole-in-the-wall tucked away on charming little Jinxian Lu, with bare walls and a few pictures of Thai temples here and there for decoration. The lack of space lends the place a convivial atmosphere on a busy evening, helped along by the cheap pitchers of Tiger beer.
It’s a little rough around the edges for a first date but is a great spot for a couple’s dinner a little further down the line. It’s even better for a dinner of groups of four or so, so that you can squeeze around one of the small tables and really mix-and-match the dishes.
Food-wise there’s a big menu that comprises all of the Thai big hitters. The green and red curries are totally decent. They taste how you’d expect and do what you’d want them to do. The kitchen whips up a truly solid Pad Thai, a sweet, salty and lip-pursing Papaya Salad and a great plate of stir-fried morning glory, aromatic and funky with fish sauce. If you have even a passing familiarity with Thai food, you ought to find your favorites here, and you ought to find them done pretty well.
The standouts are probably the whole fish dishes, particularly the Lemon Fish, which is the one constant order every time I go. Look at the menu and you’ll notice that the price for this one has been raised at some point in the past, which tells me I’m probably not alone. The fish itself isn’t the greatest quality – it’s a little soft, has the slightest of unpleasant hint of ‘river’ on occasion - but served in the richly spiced, bubbling broth it hardly matters. It’s big and bold with earthy notes of lemongrass and just the right amount of citrus whack. Pair it with one or two more dishes in a small group and you’re fed. Yours for RMB 98.
This isn’t the best Thai food you’ll ever eat; it’s probably not even the best in Shanghai. But they serve homey, street-style Thai cooking at a great price point with an ambience that lacks any pretention. For that, I’ll keep going back.
Co. Cheese is an expat institution that’s been open for a good four years or so now. They do ‘gourmet’ grilled cheese sandwiches in an environment that’s cozy, friendly and has a shaggy dog, neighborhood quality too it. Gets crowded, but always feels relaxed. The tiny ‘Melt Bar’ is great for lunch, but even better for a gluttonous Friday night dinner with a few good friends, a beer or four and one too many shots of whiskey.
After a recent visit the good news, off top, is that it’s as good as when it opened. Better, even. The selection of grilled cheeses is more extensive than ever with upwards of 25 available at any given time.
I’ve yet to have one that hasn’t satisfied me, but I do have favorites. The Pepperoni, Sundried Tomato Pesto, Goats Cheese, Parmesan and Mozzarella is always a winner. Another, obscenely packed with Tortilla Chips, Refried Beans, Fried Chorizo, Jalapeno Salsa, Avocado and Cheddar, is a dirty, messy concoction that has lingered on my mind far longer than any sandwich should. That’s not even as wild as things get. You’ll also find grilled cheese-ified variations on Chinese dishes like hong shao rou and interpolations of Thai green curry.
When I feel like something a bit more classic, the Canadian Bacon, Aged Cheddar and Tomato Chutney, a little further down the menu, is a go-to, as is the sandwich that is literally just packed with Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese. It’s simple, evil genius. If you’re into spice, they have a selection of hot sauces for greedily dredging you sandwich through, too. Don’t miss out on those.
Tldr; they do loads of grilled cheese sandwiches here, and they’re pretty much all killer. It’s RMB 50 for a regular (three pieces) and RMB 65 for a large (four pieces), the latter of which will fill you up.
Drinks are pretty reasonable, with wines available by the glass, China-brewed craft beers like Jing A and Slow Boat available for RMB 50 and some killer Bloody Marys. Along with a few milk-and-cereal cocktails that I am yet to try, their signature drink is a shot called a pickleback, and its imperative that you order a round of them. Literally just a shot of whiskey followed by a second shot of house-made pickle juice, the brininess of which immediately cuts the burn of the whiskey. If that sounds incredible to you, rest assured it’s as good as it sounds. If it sounds awful, then I feel bad for you, and I’m sorry that we can never be friends.
It’s rare that somewhere combines such satisfying, pure comfort food with a genuinely welcoming, relaxing atmosphere. You can make friends here. There should be more places like this in Shanghai.
Taiwanese Beef Noodles are the comfort food you need to know about. It’s all about the broth, a rich soup that when cooked right – usually meaning over a very long period of time - can be transformative in its richness and subtlety.
Cū diàn tang does Taiwanese beef noodles. They haven’t been around for long – they popped up in my neighborhood earlier this year - but they’ve got a nice little space. They keep it simple and do two different types of beef soup noodles; the standard Beef Noodles, and Sliced Beef Noodles. Both are RMB 38.
I’d strongly recommend the standard bowl. It’s mostly an issue of texture. The meat in the Sliced Beef Noodles is tougher, a little more work for the teeth. The chunks of beef in the Beef Noodles melt in the mouth almost indecently easily, blending with the deep animal flavors of a broth that you just know has spent a lot of time getting to know a cow’s bones.
To be clear, these aren’t cheap. Liu Dao Men is around the corner serving up some of the city’s best Sichuan noodles for around two thirds of the cost of these. But they’re something different, and something very nourishing. You’ll get a good five or six chunks of beef in your bowl, and the way they slip apart in there you’ll taste them in every bite. It’s beef soup for the soul.
They also serve up “Beijing-style” dry noodles (RMB 20) that you mix up yourself with a and fermented sauce and some grated cucumber. They’re fine and pack a decent amount of fermented flavor, but they just aren’t as good as the beef soup ones. An OK option for if you’re feeling frugal and aren’t feeling like a piping hot bowl of soup. Make sure to mix them well to make the most of them.
In addition to silken chunks of beef, one thing that separates this spot from other noodle houses – and also makes it a little better as a date / dinner-for-two place – is the quality of the small side dishes they offer. They’re nothing fancy; generally just salty little bites that are made with decent ingredients. Dried Tofu Salad (RMB 8) generously slavered with sesame oil. Cucumber lightly pounded with garlic (RMB 8). Marinated firm tofu that’s earthy and drizzled in sweet, sticky sauce (RMB 8). Stinky Tofu (RMB 15) that is gently stinky; an easy introduction to the stuff.
They also do a killer fried pork cutlet (RMB 18), and a sliced Taiwanese sausage served up with thinly sliced raw garlic (RMB 15). Have a slice of each per mouthful. It’s great. Nothing fancy, and nothing big. But a couple of extra plates can liven up the meal for under RMB 10 a person. It’s a nice touch.
But yeah, if you’re getting one thing, get the Beef Noodles.
The atmosphere here is fine. It’s clean, and pleasantly decked out with plenty of wood. Mostly, though, it’s quiet; not many people seem to be stopping by. It might be a matter of price, as these aren’t the cheapest noodles in the neighborhood. Still, I hope that changes. These noodles deserve it.
You can get soup dumplings everywhere, but their quality varies greatly, and it can be hard to know whether the one on your block is going to be good or not. Fortunately, the ones on my block are great. These are the crown jewels of Shanghai and Jiangsu cuisine, and Fa Hua Tang Bao on Fahuazhen Lu is the spot to get your fix at a seriously great price if you’re in and around Changning.
This is very much a no-frills, neighborhood joint, but it’s very clean and consistent. It’s also a great place to try Shanghai’s greatest culinary invention outside of more refined spots like the oft-cited Din Tai Fung.
Dumplings and soup are the focus of the very small menu, which is helpfully plastered on the walls, including pictures and English names. Don’t think too hard about it though, because there’s no real need to stray away from two core items. Look around and you’ll see groups of people ordering either simple pork xiao long bao or steaming bowls of laoya fensi tang (literally ‘Old Duck Sweet Potato Noodle Soup, so named because it’s thought that old birds create the most nourishing soup).
First the xiao long bao, an absolute steal at RMB 10 for 1 long (eight dumplings, labelled “Meat Soup” on the menu). These are served up, to my mind, exactly how they should be. The skins are thin and delicate, and the broth inside truly warming and rich without feeling too greasy or fatty, an issue that you’ll find at other cheaper xiao long bao spots. (Also, the chili here is always fresh and packs a real punch, something to watch out for at any place where dumpling dipping is integral to enjoyment). Nibble a hole, slurp out some soup, dip in chili and vinegar and sigh. This right here is Shanghainese comfort food that lets you know, soothingly, that all is right with the world.
There are other varieties, too. A meat and shepard’s purse variety (RMB 15, “Cooking Soup” on the menu), which I’m partial to for the sake of variety, is decent but not as good as the meat ones. They’re less soupy and therefore less satisfying. Crab and pork xiao long (RMB 30) aren’t crabby enough to merit the increased price tag. There is also an advertised “Homemade Soup” version for a comparatively eye-popping RMB 50 which I am yet to sample and perhaps never will; I simply can’t imagine them being five times better than the exceptional RMB 10 treats that keep me coming back.
Basically, stick with the RMB 10 “Meat Soup” xiao long bao. They’re cheap and absolutely great.
Now, to the second item that you’ll see on pretty much every table. Listed as “Duck Vermicelli Soup” in English, the laoya fensi tang (RMB 15) is a great accompaniment to a round of dumplings. It’s a staple in this part of the country, and it definitely packs a bit of that undefinable “home-cooking” feel. It might, however, be more of an acquired taste given the fact that along with cilantro, chewy fried tofu and glass noodles, the principle ingredients are duck stomach and duck blood. Yum. The stomach actually has a texture not too dissimilar to normal flesh. The iron notes and firm-jello texture of the duck blood cubes might be less appealing but might not be too unfamiliar to anyone that is partial to, say, blood sausage.
There’s a reason that everyone in here is eating it. It tastes good, if you can get used to the flavors and textures. If not, you’re totally fine to simply order a bowl and request that no duck parts are included. It’s still a satisfying way to feel a bit fuller than you’ll feel if you just eat dumplings, particularly in the winter months. If you are going to be adventurous, adding chili and a little vinegar goes a long way toward masking some of the duckier offal aromas.
The final thing I’ve failed to mention are the shao mai, small chewy rice dumplings that usually contain a small chunk of dry pork (RMB 10, labelled “Three small dumplings”). They’re fine. Nothing stellar but a decent filler if you don’t feel like noodles / soup.
The place can be tricky to find the first time you go. In the second half of 2017 all of the store fronts on Fahuazhen Lu were boarded up, meaning that you have to find alternative ways to enter them, usually via the entrance of whatever compound their building is in. Fa Hua Tang Bao can be reached by the main door of a residential building - fortunately, the kitchen has a street-facing window, so you should be able to spot it.
It’s a fun atmosphere. Small, cramped and often loud with brusque service. When I visit on weekend mornings the crowd always seems to be a mixture of young mums and dads with their children, old neighborhood locals and kids that could have stumbled right out of Dada a couple of blocks over. Good vibes. And seriously good dumplings.
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.