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The Brunch List: March 2016

This month in brunch: killer 24/7 Chinese breakfast, dim sum in Zhongshan Park, taitai café breakfast platters, and country music on the Westside.
2016-03-03 17:29:54
The Brunch List is our monthly column pinpointing great (and not so great) brunch spots around town. Everything below is all you need to know about where to get leisurely weekend eats.

This month, we get out of the malls and the city center to bring you some lesser known and more local brunch and breakfast options. We'll return with some six-star luxury brunches and champagne opulence next month.

A'Wen (阿文)


Good for: Proper Chinese breakfast and childhood memories
Available: 24/7

New-ish Shanghai breakfast chain A'Wen is the perfect balance between the realness of street breakfast and the clean-yet-sterile Taoyuan Village. In a city where finding a skyscraper or fancy mall is increasingly easier than finding a simple da bing you tiao on the streets, Uncle A'Wen is triggering breakfast memories and the tastes of childhood. He looks like the Shanghainese cousin of Wenfeng the hairdresser and has made several appearances on Chinese TV, once with Fan Bingbing's boyfriend eating there and another time with Taiwanese star Charles Chen.

A'Wen -- the dude -- comes from Anhui, and his menu is huge and worth exploring, but you're really coming here for two specialties: the xian dou hua, a silky tofu pudding that's perfect for dipping a you tiao in, and the danbing, which is like a Chinese omelet topped with jiang you gao -- basically, a sweet and thick paste version of soy sauce. You can get the latter wrapped around a youtiao, that Chinese cruller king of Chinese breakfast foods. These items are both under 10rmb, and one could sample several corners of the menu and walk out for less than 30rmb a person. They don't serve any drinks here except soy milk, but won't mind if you bring your own.

Danbing and you tiao on the left, and the delicious but un-photogenic xian dou hua on the right

The oil quality here is noticeably better than at street stalls, so you walk away without that lead feeling in your stomach. If you're looking for other options, their vegetable wonton (which still contains pork) is a strong look, and though the skin on their crab meat xiao long bao is way too thick, they're worth ordering.

The restaurant itself, just off Huaihai Lu and in between the electronics mall where the Mac Doctor resides and the crayfish street Shouning Lu, is old-school, lively, and local. Crucially, they stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making this a solid end-up after the club as much as a start to the day. If it's one of those weekends when you don't want to leave the house, you can get delivery on Eleme, and the minimum order is just 40rmb. I've eaten there probably ten times in the last month, and it's consistently satisfying. Shout out to A'Wen.

On one Chinese BBS forum, a girl claims that she forgot her phone at A'Wen, and when she called, they said "yeah, we have your phone, but A'Wen has a rule that if you forget your phone, you need to pay 100rmb to get it back." If that's true, that's pretty gangster.


Royal Garden


Good For: Cheap dim sum with cute grandmas and a day in Zhongshan Park
Available: Mon-Fri, 9.30am-4.30pm; Sat & Sun, 9am-4.30pm. Mon-Fri dim sum is 12% off before 2pm and 30% off after 2pm.

Zhongshan Park is one of the few big parks in Shanghai where one can actually play on the grass, and on weekends the place turns into a huge lawn party filled with kites and bubbles drifting through the air. Unbeknownst to many, the back of the park contains a castle of a Cantonese restaurant called Royal Garden, which has been there for ten years and is consistently packed with happy grandmas and grandpas enjoying the daily discount on dim sum. It's not the finest dim sum in the world, but the price and the vibe more than make up for that.

Even with 100 occupied tables, one of the head waiters helped us find a spot by the window. The sun shined on all, as uncles drank wine at 1pm on a Wednesday and grandmas smiled and waved at us from across the room. For big groups and family reunions, they have private rooms with huge round tables and massive windows peering into the park, with no minimum fee (call ahead, though). This is maybe half of the order, which was easily enough to fill 3-4 people, and the bill came out to 220rmb:

Highlights were the crispy and meaty pigeon, the fried noodles, and the pork and shrimp shao mai.

Other dishes, like the BBQ pork (cha shao) just didn't taste as fresh or high quality as what you might find at a place like Cha's or even Xinwang (not to mention high-end Cantonese joints), but for 20rmb, not terrible. The BBQ goose might be a better look. Shrimp chang fen is just ok, but doesn't approach the delicacy that dish can become in a master's hands. The BBQ pork buns also lacked, as did the egg tarts, which had a hint of artificial sweetener. Still, that's just nitpicking -- the food is more than passable, and the atmosphere is charming in an old-school way that's hard to find these days. A group of friends could spend a whole morning gorging themselves on dim sum and sipping tea here for super cheap, followed by a nap in the park without any bao'an screaming to get off the grass.


Boom Cafe


Good For: A cheap, hangover destroying breakfast platter served daily.
Available: All day, every day.

You would probably walk right past Boom Cafe without even noticing it. Just around the corner from Zhongshan Park, the place is attached to a dry cleaners, and the decor inside is middle aged princess-core, complete with Audrey Hepburn chairs, a Taobao e-fireplace, rainbow cakes looking like ghetto Care Bears, and waitstaff in snazzy baseball jackets. But here's the catch: they serve a really solid breakfast platter, all day, every day. The portions -- especially the "small" salads -- are massive, the "Boom Coffee" is strong, and the patio is a fine setting for a recovery sesh or extended conversation. Let's get into that breakfast platter.

Boom! 40rmb for a heap of scrambled eggs, some not-quite-crispy-enough jigsaw puzzle bacon, a decent salad with balsamic dressing, some mushrooms and onions, and a full toasted baguette. One could assemble this in any number of manners, or opt for the 35rmb breakfast baguette, which is just this minus the salad and mushrooms. It's more than filling, but they could utilize the ingredients a bit better; like, melt the cheese with the eggs instead of just laying it atop the bread. Still, this really is the ideal recovery platter.

The patio definitely beats the kitschy inside and its overly small tables, not least because on one visit, friends of the owner were occupying a whole corner, clad in Juicy and Septwolves leisure apparel and chattering loudly like birds. Service is pleasant though, and those baseball jackets have their charm. Boom isn't worth trekking across town for, but if you live in the neighborhood and need a filling breakfast on the cheap, this is your go-to.


Bubba's Hongqiao


Good For: Families living nearby; BBQ and American South vibes
Available: Sat & Sun: 11am-2pm

Bubba’s Hongqiao has a limited weekend brunch menu, consisting of just four different platters for 60rmb each and 25rmb Bloody Marys and Screwdrivers. During our visit, the first floor eventually filled up with patrons by 1.30pm and the consensus seemed to be that you don’t visit a BBQ house for their brunch menu.

The presentation of the Texas soft taco platter wasn’t particularly inspiring, and looked like something you’d get at a Best Western in Henan. Fortunately, when it comes to cheesy scrambled eggs and sausage wrapped in a tortilla, it more or less tastes as you would expect.

The Texican proved to be a much better dish. That's two fried tortillas topped with Moss Mann’s Terlingua tournament Texas chili (their words), hash browns, and sunny side up eggs. This would have been a solid dish with a side order of breakfast sausage patties (20 RMB).

Other brunch offerings were your standard plate of eggs, hash, bacon/sausage with toast, and sausage biscuits with eggs any style and gravy. Just about everyone opted for the regular menu and gorged on food like ribs, smoked chicken wings and pulled pork sandwiches. If that’s what some folks want as their first weekend meal, I can’t see anything wrong with that.

The environment feels appropriately broken in for a place that’s been open for over ten years: big 10 college football banners and US license plates hang on the walls, and the drink menu probably hasn’t seen an update in years. There is a sense of community out here in the Westside. Soft country music plays over the speakers and older expats in the upper echelon of the BMI bring their kids on the weekends. Hardy Yongkang warriors probably wouldn’t feel too at home here.

- Handoogies


For a complete list of brunches around Shanghai, check out our Brunch Deals page.