When I just want a mountain of cheap, tasty food and not even for a second consider how much it costs, there's only one choice for me: Dongbei food. It's not classy, it's not delicate, and it's certainly not healthy, but it always hits the spot.
Made my way to the Dongbei Four Seasons Dumpling King on Xikang to satisfy my craving. The reviews on Dazhong Dianping aren't great, but I don't care, because I know what I want, and I'll know they'll do a good job with it.
The giant caveman bone of pork （大骨肉）was tender, juicy and flavorful from sitting in a vat of braising juice all day. Pull on your plastic gloves, grab the bone with both hands, and tear into it like an animal. Just make sure you have floss at home for later.
The dry stir-fried green beans （干煸四季豆）were flavorful, salty, a little spicy and slightly crispy on the outside. It's tough to mess these up.
The sliced/smashed cucumber with vinegar and salt (拍黄花) was tangy, crunchy, and refreshing. The only way this dish can go wrong is if the cucumber isn't fresh, and this one was just fine.
The home-style tofu （家常豆腐）was the only stumble of the meal from my perspective. This dish is usually a little sweet, but I felt like this iteration was way too sweet for my liking...the cloying sweet sauce was overwhelming and I wasn't able to finish.
The cumin lamb (孜然羊肉) was honestly unlikely any cumin lamb I've ever had before. Instead of being made with chunks of lamb meat stir-fried with cumin and spices until crispy, it appeared to have been made with the slices of lamb that are usually prepared for hot pot: very thin, fatty strips that curl up as the fat constricts while cooking. While I hadn't had it like this before, it was also delicious stir fried with the green onion shoots, and I'd order it again.
Overall, it was exactly what I want from a Dongbei meal. The dinner for two came out to less than 150 RMB, we stuffed ourselves silly, and just about everything was tasty. I didn't get a shot of the interior, but it looks basically like every other Dongbei restaurant in town: wooden tables, wooden stools, wooden decorations on the walls, rustic and simple. High-brow diners will have to look elsewhere, but Dongbei Four Seasions Dumpling King will remain my standby whenever that craving for a mountain of cheap food hits.
Oh, but don't get the dumplings. Ironically, I find them pretty blah here. Get anything at the Four Seasons Dumpling King except the dumplings.
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.
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