Like the gua bao -- those steamed buns stuffed with meats and fillings and folded over like a taco, which David Chang and Eddie Huang popularized in the west -- Jenny Gao started in China and returned in remixed form. Born in Chengdu, her dad's job as a nuclear physicist had the family moving around all the time. She ended up in Shanghai 3.5 years ago after stints in Toronto, Beijing and Singapore, working in marketing, tech, food tours, and design, all while writing her food blog, Jing Theory. That blog led to a couple book projects, a BBC documentary, and working on episodes of Eddie Huang's Fresh off the Boat show on VICE and Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods.
These days, along with her partner Alex Xu, she runs the gua bao shop Baoism down in the food court in Xintiandi's Hubindao mall. The same force drives her blog and the restaurant -- an urge to share Chinese food with the world. She is a fan of that baijiu fire water, considers Sichuan the best cuisine on earth, and plays a lot of Wu-Tang Clan and other '90s hip hop in her restaurant. Surprisingly, most of her new customers have never heard of gua bao before: "You'd think it's like a foreign food here," she says. But trends take off fast in Shanghai. As for how Baoism got started, she explains:
"[The] idea came about when we were just shooting the shit about what was missing in the food world here… A lot of popular brands these days are western, and there's so much to celebrate in Chinese food culture. I felt that was wrong, and had written about that a lot in my blog, too. I felt there was space for something quick, casual, tasty, safe/clean, but most importantly also accessible (read: affordable) for young people in urban China. The plan is to open more, in Shanghai, beyond Shanghai, and even beyond China."
We asked her to give up five of her favorite spots in town, and she came back with a list of Taiwanese BBQ, late-night Korean, and low-key vegetarian joints.
1. Ri He
"This is a pretty badass Japanese spot introduced to me by Austin Hu. They focus on sukiyaki, which is the nabemono style of simmering beef in a pot of broth at the table along with vegetables and tofu. They definitely know their beef here, with selections of wagyu and kobe ranging in price from moderate to very pricey. They also dole out fresh, raw seafood, platters of giant sea urchin in the shell, scampi, o-toro and more. I didn't expect to love the raw horse sashimi as much as I did, and the sweet soy-glazed kinki (Japanese thornyhead) fish will hurt your wallet but definitely not your stomach."
2. Jini Dapaidang (吉尼大排档)
"This is always a good crowd favorite, my friends and I call it 'Red Tent’, because you basically sit under a large tent in what looks like a parking lot of a strip mall out in the Honqiao hinterlands. It's filled with red-faced salarymen and groups of rowdy kids hunched over platters of fried chicken and bubbling vats of kimchi soup. It's hot, it's loud, it's lawless, and to be honest the environment probably makes the food taste better than it actually is. But who are we kidding, you're here to get sloshed more than anything. So get one of those giant troughs of Asahi, some fried chicken, seafood pancake, and the kimchi hotpot with spam, sausages, rice cakes and tofu. Don't forget to ask them to throw an instant ramen on top."
3. Hutong Taiwanese BBQ
"I was turned onto this place by my friend Betty Richardson, the white girl with the
most Asian taste buds alive. Don't know how she managed to find this, but girl's got direction. This place is hidden on the 2nd floor of a nondescript mall at the random corner of Changle and Maoming. I'm not really sure how to define Taiwanese BBQ, but it seems to combine all the best of Korean and Japanese BBQs and then adds cheese to it. Winning combo. The service is stellar, knowledgeable staff take you through the menu and cook for you at your table. I mean, everything is good, but what you need to get are the beef tongue with mountains of chopped scallion, the squid ink sausage served with their house made armageddon hot sauce, crab roe stuffed raw scallop, mentaiko and cheese-baked yam, the staff rice -- a combination of scallions, onions, salmon furikake all mixed together -- and the simple dessert of sweet potato baked with cheese, so good I almost wept."
4. Wu Guan Tang (五观堂素食)
"My favorite vegetarian in the city. It's in a pretty lane house on Xinhua Lu, Buddhist-owned, and serene AF, with the dopest hidden rooftop patio. The menu is handwritten of course, and all inventive, seasonal dishes. It lacks the glam of Wujie, and isn't as rustic as Godly, but the vibe is just right. The food is thoughtful and full of flavor, you won't find mock meat in brown sauce or unidentifiable molecular spheres here. Make sure you get the baked scalloped potato 烤土豆, it looks innocent enough, arrives sliced in a little metal tin, but under that golden caramelized top it's just pure buttery crack. My other favorite is the 'dragon eye beans' (shoutout to Asian vegetables) stir fried in preserved olive leaves served with 窝窝头, these fluffy little concave baos made of cornmeal, like the Tostitos Scoops of Chinese food."
5. Senator Saloon
"I hate to do this, because they don't need any more publicity. But if I'm going to be real with myself, this is the place I've spent more time in than anywhere else in Shanghai. (According to Swarm, I've checked in here more than my yoga studio, which tells you where my priorities are, and where all my money has gone... and that I'm a huge nerd who uses Swarm). The Old Fashioned is best value for getting turnt real quick, but I've recently discovered their off-the-menu Blood & Sand, which should come with a warning label for being way too fucking delicious, try not downing that one in under three minutes. Don't sleep on the food either. The cheesy edamame and Mac n Cheese > late night booty any day. A few drinks deep and I just can't help myself."