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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