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[Eat It]: Rui Fu Yuan

SmartShanghai deconstructs the menu of a Shanghai favorite. Everything from stuffed river snails to drunken hairy crabs...
By Jul 20, 2012 Dining

Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.

Rui Fu Yuan has been a standby for home-style Shanghai cai for nearly two decades. Once upon a time, it held court on Jinxian Lu with other local legends like Chun, Lan Xin, and Hai Jin Zi. It has since moved on to bigger digs a few blocks away on Maoming Nan Lu. That doesn't seem to have any effect on what's coming out of the kitchen, though. This place is packed. Let's take a look at what's on their tables.

Every meal at Rui Fu Yuan should start with a plate of this...

This is a Shanghai fave that you'll see in various forms around town. Yong Xing, for instance, does a version of it with duck. Rui Fu Yuan's recipe calls for tender cuts of thigh meat. That golden center is a salted egg yolk. You'll see it on the menu as 咸蛋黄鸡卷 (xian dan huang ji juan). Price: 28rmb.

Once you move into mains territory, you'll need this on your table...

Yellow croaker soup with pork wontons. It's a signature item. Most locals that I've talked to about this place have told me that if you order only one dish at Rui Fu Yuan it has to be this.It all starts with the broth. They simmer the fish for hours, as the sweet buttery flesh flakes from the bone, the stock turns a creamy white. It's quite similar, in fact, to the soup you'll find here. The soup is then finished off with tiny, tender, thin-skinned pork wontons. Here it is in Chinese: 黄鱼馄饨汤 (xiao yu hun tun tang). Price: 88rmb.

Then there is this...

Call this Shanghai's answer to escargots. Instead of drawn butter and herbs, these are stewed to perfection in that holy Shanghai trinity of soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar. They toss in some white pepper and star anise as well. True to Chinese form, this dish is ballasted with a healthy helping of pork. They extract all of the tender snail meat, mince it up with some ground pork, and then stuff it back into the shell. It's delicious. You can find it listed on the menu as: 特色田螺塞肉煲 (te se tian luo sai rou bao). That basically describes what it is: "a pot of river snails stuffed with pork." Price: 32rmb for a small portion.

Also not to be missed is this...

Drunken crab. This one's pretty straightforward. Raw hairy crabs are marinated in yellow rice wine. The sherry-like flavor of the wine marries beautifully with the sweet flesh of the crab. It tastes great now, of course. But if you wait until November, when the crabs store up their fat and prepare for the mating season, you'll be rewarded with lots more of this...

Roe. Ooey. Gooey. Orange. Good. It truly is the best part. Believe me. To order it, look for this on the menu: 醉毛蟹 (zui mao xie). Price: 38rmb for a small portion.

If that's too much grapple and squirm factor for you, here's another option...

This is a plate of tiny clams from nearby Ningbo. These little gems are roughly the size of pumpkin seeds, earning them the name hai gua zi -- literally "ocean seeds." Rui Fu Yuan stir fries them with simple, but classic, combination of ginger, scallions, and garlic, along with a few splashes of soy sauce and vinegar. Look for these characters on the menu: 宁波海瓜子 (Níngbo hai gua zi). Price 68rmb for a small portion.

Finally, you'll need some filler. Skip the rice. Go for this instead.

You know it. You love it. The classic Shanghai street snack shengjian bao. Puffy, crispy, steamy, soupy. It is arguably one of the greatest foodstuffs in existence. Rui Fu Yuan's are particularly tasty because they stuff them with crab as well as pork. Also, they're about the size of a small fist, so rest assured you'll feel stuffed after just one. Look for these characters on the menu: 蟹粉生煎 (xiefen shengjian).Price: 28rmb.

Rui Fu Yuan usually fills up by 6pm and stays that way for the better part of the evening. And don't even bother going after the dinner rush; most of this stuff will be out of stock by then. Fortunately, they take reservations. If you want to avoid disappointment, do yourself a favor and avail yourself of that courtesy. Failing that, plan on waiting or getting there early, we're talking 5.30pm or so.



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