Jamie Barys had a jian bing cart, xiao long bao and a la mian station at her wedding. You could say she likes street food. More than that, she’s built a business out of guiding eaters to the best food this city has to offer, founding UnTour Food Tours in 2010 with partner Kyle Long. They now do more than 1,200 tours a year in China (Shanghai and Beijing) with more than 40 guides. Knowing where to eat is not a hobby for her – it’s her profession. This is her abridged list.
Kong Yi Ji does a special hairy crab menu during hairy crab season (right now). You can go in and get a full set that’s all hairy crab dishes, but I prefer to order a la carte off the menu. They have these hairy crab wontons that are soooo good: very small shepherd's purse and pork wontons in a broth that’s flavored with crab roe and has crab meat in the bottom of it. Very clean flavors, really delicious, highly recommended. You can also get just pure hairy crab meat, whole crabs, tons of different options, all on a picture menu, so it’s easy to order.
The other awesome thing ii they do a huangjiu sampler. You get six different types of huangjiu, some of which are five years old, some of which are 25 years old, with different levels of sweetness. We do that on the tour: pairing the hairy crab with the TCM Shaoxing wine. It’s a good intro to learning what good huangjiu is and what the different grades of sugariness mean.
It’s also cool because it’s buried behind the Confucius temple. You turn the corner and it’s an alleyway with red lanterns, and it makes people think “oh, this is what Shanghai looks like in the movies”. It’s also a big wow moment. Outside are a ton of those old weathered wine jugs. At the very beginning of the crab season, they use ginger to make a rockery that looks like Yu Gardens, and as the season goes on, the ginger begins to grow leaves. So cool.
Pengyuan is a little hole in the wall owned by a very proud husband and wife team from Anhui who are in it together from 6am to 7pm every day. I do not know how they’re still married. They make everything fresh throughout the day. The pork gelatin they make in advance, of course, but everything else is fresh and freshly wrapped and they have two woks that are constantly frying potstickers. I think they’re the best potstickers in the city. It used to be on our dumpling tour but then our cooking class moved and we had to change the route.
The super freshness is one of my favorite things, and they use good quality meat. There’s a wet market around the corner, and they literally go out and get freshly chopped meat throughout the day. Just don’t lean against the sides of the shop. It’s covered in oil and will ruin your clothes.
I know people like to talk about the Muslim market outside the Huxi Mosque, which is fine, it’s good, but it’s gotten a little bit touristy and gone downhill a little in the last five years. So, I highly recommend the Pudong Muslim market. It’s also outside of a mosque but MUCH cleaner; the food looks cleaner, the environment is cleaner and you don’t have to deal with many tourists. It’s mostly Uighur residents. The market is pretty big too. It takes up a city block – a Pudong city block. It has the exact same foods as in Puxi, but there are more vendors. So you get the steamed pumpkin and lamb dumplings, obviously tons of chuanr, you get the zhua fan, the rice pilaf with the fatty lamb throughout, plus tons of dried dates and raisins and walnuts and handicrafts. I always recommend this one to people over the Huxi mosque. We don’t take scheduled tours there, only bespoke or private tours, but it’s pretty accessible.
I have to give a shout to Old Jesse. Only the original, not any of the new Jesse’s, which should be avoided at all costs. Old Jesse just went through a refurb so now its even more sparkly and nice in there than it was before. The waitstaff is still as grumpy and mean as ever, especially to foreigners, but I found that if I call and pre-order the “secret menu” expensive dishes, they they wouldn’t be as rude to me and stick me in that foreigner side room. So if you order the order the opium fish head or the eight-treasure duck or eight-treasure pigs trotter, then usually they are a little nicer to you.
I love their fuzhu that has button mushrooms underneath. It’s a cold dish – so good. It has a little bit of chili oil, but Shanghainese, so not super spicy, with really nice fresh bamboo tofu and raw mushrooms.
A Da used to be a stop on our breakfast tour when he was on Nanchang Lu, still serving the cong you bing out of the back door of his apartment. But then I had this incident.
I had known him from when I first moved to China in 2007 – a friend in his building introduced me to him – so after that, he would call me ‘old friend’ and let me cut the line. I’d bring him a pack of cigarettes or his favorite tea whenever we had a tour. So on this one tour, I had six guests, and I went up to the window to talk to him. But in line there was this Shanghainese lady with her foreign husband who had clearly been living abroad and had come back to get scallion pancakes. She saw me cut the line, and she was like ‘What are you doing?’. I told her it’s fine, we’re old friends, and she was like, “Yeah, good luck with that.” So I walked up to the front and starting talking to A Da and he asked how many I needed – he would expedite our order – and she saw that and flipped. She came up front behind me, and slammed me into the brick wall, in front of my six guests. She started screaming at me in Shanghainese, and then A Da started screaming at her in Shanghainese, and then switched to Mandarin, and was like “She’s my old friend! You will never be served here!” and told her to leave and that she’d never get to eat his scallion pancakes again.
I decided after that I shouldn’t take groups there and cut the line anymore. Now I just recommend people go on their own.
But his cong you bing are by far my favorite. Just the amount of care — he takes like 20 minutes to do one set of them, constantly flipping them, then puts them in the kiln underneath to crisp them up, which is a nice touch. He’s open six days a week in his new location, and closes on Wednesdays, and takes all of August off. Good for him, he deserves a break. He looks older than he is, but if you look at his hands, they look so young because they’re just constantly in lard from cooking, so there’s like no wrinkles at all!