A Local Shanghainese Food Tour
“It’s hard to be a tourist in China. For one, you are primed to expect one of the world’s greatest cuisines, but the language barrier means that most of it is probably inaccessible. There is no great guide to eating in this country, or even in this city, and it’s hard to know who to trust. In this absence, unreliable websites like TripAdvisor and misguided books like Lonely Planet assume outsize influence. Underpaid or underinformed writers tread on the safest ground, rehashing the recommendations of ten or twenty years before, and so one ends up with restaurants…which has little going for it other than an English menu and an English-speaking staff.” — Christopher St. Cavish
While I cannot agree that Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor are completely misguided and unreliable, they are somewhat white washed. A quick look at TripAdvisor’s 10 best restaurants in Shanghai and you’ll notice that there is only one Chinese restaurant, and that’s in the Ritz-Carlton. Something similar goes for Lonely Planet; its Chinese restaurant suggestions are primarily places of great extravagance and hence cost–not the kind of place your local Shanghainese would eat on a typical weekend.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it’s only natural for English speaking tourists and reviewers to prefer Western tastes. It’s also totally natural for us to prefer nicer and and seemingly the highest quality places, especially for Chinese food in China (yeah, I know).
So my goal is to introduce a more local palette to you. Many of these places are popular among locals, but the bottom line is I truly enjoy each and every one of these restaurants, and they all do something special with the dishes I recommend.
You can read this piece as an article on food or a food tour itinerary. If used as an itinerary, I suggest starting perhaps around 8–9 AM, and going through all these stops for brunch; most of these are breakfast/lunch foods anyway. In my experience, you’ll be eating and walking for a good 3–4 hours at least. I’ve also added a bare-essentials Chinese guide at the bottom of the article which contains relevant Chinese characters, their pinyin for pronunciation, and their corresponding English definitions. I’ve done this food tour a few times with friends and family and so far it’s worked out well. But as a caveat, by no means am I an expert on Shanghainese food, or food in general; I suppose my only qualification is my having been there before.
Along the trip, the food is pretty cheap, and the largest cost is the opportunity cost of your stomach. I recommend going with at least one or two other people to share every dish, so that you can try a little bit of everything without getting too full. Also, some places aren’t really good aside from the dish they specialize in, so that it’s probably not worth your stomach space to order too many things from each place.
Stop 1: Soup Dumplings at Lailai or Jiajia
Address: 天津路504号 | 504 TianJin Rd (LaiLai), 黄河路90号 | 90 HuangHe Rd (Jiajia)
Objectively, a good and skillful soup dumpling is measured by 3 properties: thin skin, plentiful soup, and abundant filling. Making a good soup dumpling in these regards is an engineering challenge; it’s physically impossible to try to satisfy all 3, so compromises have to be made.
In 2014, Shanghai food writer and faux soup dumpling scientist Christopher St Cavish (the guy who I quoted at the top) visited 52 well-known restaurants, with calipers and an electronic weight, to scientifically measure which vendors had the best soup dumplings. The result, the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index, is an interesting and informative poster that can be hung in your living room as exotic art or learned as useless trivia.
Today, St Cavish recommends Jiajia Tangbao, and so does Dianping and TripAdvisor: it’s the second best soup dumpling place in Shanghai on Dianping (the 1st one is really good, but like 40km away in the middle of nowhere, so don’t bother), and also the top rated local cuisine restaurant in Shanghai on TripAdvisor.
Jiajia is decent and very popular among locals, Chinese tourists, and foreign tourists–dare I say overhyped. In my experience from their location near People’s Square, I’ve had to wait no matter what time I’ve come. The small storefront packs 6 tables that seat 6 each in a very cramped space, so be prepared to get uncomfortably intimate sharing the table. Once, I sat next to an easy-going white lady who called the 99 RMB pure crab dumplings the best she’s ever had, while another time I sat across from a Singaporean man whose manner of eating soup dumplings probably offended the craft.
There are a few tips to eating soup dumplings that an old soup dumpling chef once taught me. Firstly, eat them while they’re hot by biting a small hole on the side and sucking out the delicious soup, before dipping them in vinegar to finish it. In addition, when using your chopsticks, grab the dumplings near the bottom and don’t be scared that the skin will break–they shouldn’t as long as you’re not clamping too hard. Also, dip the ends of the chopsticks in vinegar beforehand; the wetness will prevent the skin from sticking. Lastly, if you’re eating crab soup dumplings that have a hole on top, first use a second spoon to pour a little bit of vinegar into the soup dumpling before eating. This will both reduce the intensity of the crab flavor, a common practice eating crab in China, and cool the insides before you bite in.
I’m going to recommend you to go to Lailai Soup Dumpling instead of Jiajia for 3 reasons. The first is that Lailai is less well known and has more seats, so that you don’t have to wait for a good 20 minutes in line to share a table. The second is that I think Lailai’s soup dumplings are just better. Comparatively, Jiajia’s soup dumplings are quite small, with a thin skin and plentiful soup, but less filling. Lailai’s is similar, but with larger dumplings and hence more filling and soup. However, Lailai’s gave up selling the low-margin pork dumplings quite a while ago, so they now only sell expensive options including crab and matsuke mushroom mixed with pork. Lastly, Lailai is overall cleaner. For one, the steamer comes with a piece of steamer paper underneath on which the soup dumplings stand. Do yourself a favor and don’t look at Jiajia’s steamers before you eat: it looks like a yeast infection, spotted with remnants of soup dumpling skin from God knows when.
I don’t want to discount Jiajia, in fact feel free to go to both and try for yourself. By the end of the day, both are pretty good, and both steam their dumplings on order. This is crucial as St Cavish found: after steaming, the wrapper gradually begins to absorb steam and soup, causing it to inflate and thicken, while decreasing the amount of soup. Another reason to eat them hot, I suppose.
Stops 2 and 3: Shengjianbao at XiaoYangShengJian and DongTaiXiang
Address: 黄河路97号 | 97 HuangHe Rd (XiaoYang), 重庆北路188号 | 188 N. ChongQing Rd (DongTaiXiang)
I think it’s vital to try 2 very different types of Shengjianbao: the leavened kind and the non-leavened kind, or simply put, the non-Xiaoyang kind and the Xiaoyang kind.
XiaoYang ShengJian (小杨生煎), or Yang’s Fried Dumplings, is the most popular Shanghainese chain restaurant in Shanghai, with more than 100 restaurants in the city. In fact, across the street from Jiajia is a XiaoYang’s. It’s pretty good too: I once saw a middle aged Shanghainese man enjoy his XiaoYang to-go while waiting for his soup dumplings at Jiajia.
I remember the time before XiaoYang franchised out, some 15 years ago, when it was a humble establishment on WuJiang road before it remodeled (this is a common theme in Shanghai). I remember when hygiene inspection wasn’t a thing and I had to go up flights of cramped stairs in their tiny storefront building to find a seat. Back then, their shop was famously good, but now they can be found in any 2nd or 3rd tier mall’s food court as a cheap option where you’re set with <20 RMB.
Despite its rapid expansion, I can’t say XiaoYang has gotten much worse. In fact, I’d insist on you at least trying it out while in Shanghai. Their skins are thin, packing an unexpected amount of soup made from jellified stock (PiDong) with humongous meat fillings you might as well be eating only meat. They’re delicious really; how else can you splurge on a Shengjianbao?
However, this shengjianbao isn’t the whole story. There’s another school of shengjianbao quite different than that of XiaoYang. They leaven their dough to some degree, so that the skin is puffy and thick, like that of a mantou than the skin-thinned wrapper of XiaoYang. Generally, the meat filling also doesn’t include any jellified stock, so that there is no soup. In the roughest comparison, XiaoYang ShengJian is like a pan fried big soup dumpling with thin skin, plentiful soup, and large fillings, while this kind is a pan fried small baozi with puffy leavened dough and no soup inside.
As a result, they are eaten differently with different focuses. Eat XiaoYang like a soup dumpling: suck out the soup first unless you want to take the risk of getting juice squirt. XiaoYang is all about that meat, while leavened kinds often also place a stress on the dough too.
At DongTaiXiang (东泰祥), you can try the other kind. They’re “half-leavened” shengjianbao in that after they are wrapped, they are placed in a fridge to leaven for 20 minutes and cannot be held for long. The result is this somewhat puffy skin that well encloses the meat. The dough offers a comfortable texture that is mixed with the crispy frying without getting too thick, and that balance is perfect. However, be warned that if you’ve already tried XiaoYang first, these will feel much more lackluster with an overall smaller size, basically no soup, and much smaller filling.
At XiaoYang, I recommend getting the original pork dumplings that are 8 RMB for 4. If you like variety, try out the variety plate featuring 2 each of original, shrimp, and mustard greens+pork fillings. These things can fill you up quickly: don’t have more than a couple per person, or at most one of each in the variety dish.
Stop 4: Noodles at WeiXiangZhai
Address: 雁荡路14号 | 14 YanDang Rd
Honestly, this is one of my favorite restaurants in Shanghai.
WeiXiangZhai (味香斋) doesn’t seem to care about anything, seriously. I think the (cliché) word is unapologetic, but it fails to describe this place. Their chopsticks are so used that you’d be lucky to find two of the same length, and the plates have inconsistent styles, each looking like what you’d get from a different street vendor. Since their opening in the 70s, they’ve never expanded past this little 20 m² storefront despite bustling business, unlike all the other restaurants (except Lailai) you’ve now had. They also don’t have a knack for hygiene: once, I walked through the kitchen and saw an oily stack of fried pork chops casually piled up like dirty laundry, except the laundry would soon be served. Notice the fact that I could just casually walk through the kitchen too.
I could go on about how this place fails basically every metric of a good restaurant: the rickety tables and chairs, the packed seating, the oil in the noodles that partly come from the fried pork chops…but I actually want you to eat here.
The dish that WeiXiangZhai is famous for is their MaJiangMian (麻酱面). It’s a very simple dish of coifed noodles poured over with a sesame and peanut sauce , topped with a scoop of braised pork broth and green onion. Make sure to mix the sauce well with the noodles before eating, so that when you eat the noodles the thickness of the sauce blends in. At the start it tastes as if you poured some peanut butter on your noodles, but then it gets addicting, and before you know it, it’s over. If you want a very mild flavor of spice and some protein, order a LaJiangJiao (辣酱交) and pour it over the noodles, especially the chili oil.
Because of how thick the sauce is, the unspoken tradition is to also order a side of lightly curried beef soup (小牛汤) to drink with as you eat. Personally, I’d pass on this and instead go to the family mart next door to get a Vita Lemon tea. The drink works amazingly well with the noodles, breaking up the cloggi-ness of the thick texture. But then again, that’s just me.
A few years back when I first came upon this place, the median customer age was well in the 50s and so were the ‘servers’, and the cashier lady rudely looked at me when I started ordering in Mandarin instead of Shanghainese. Even a year ago, they only accepted cash despite the ubiquity of Wechat pay and Alipay. But things are changing now: more young locals and tourists are coming to this place, and they also now take Alipay when I went back this summer.
Stop 5: Ice Cream at LaoDaChang
Address: 淮海中路558号 | 558 HuaiHai Middle Rd
This bakery sits on Huaihai Middle Road, a historically and presently bustling commercial boulevard that connects HuangPu with HongQiao. In the past, Huaihai Middle Road was the main avenue down the French Concession; back then, it was called Avenue Joffre, named after the French WWI general. Today, it’s not difficult to get the vibe of the former French concession: along the avenue, London Plane trees and Western styles of buildings appear to get its own twist that makes it uniquely Shanghai, much akin to the baked goods at LaoDaChang (老大昌) (sorry for this puffy transition haha).
Founded in the 1910s by the French, LaoDaChang is a Western bakery that’s operated through the French settlement, WWII, the CCP revolution, and 70 years after that. Back in the days of European settlement, it was one of the most popular bakeries and was the first to introduce ice cream to Shanghai in the 1930s. Nowadays, LaoDaChang has become a local institution where generations of Shanghainese–and you may notice especially the older generations–come to enjoy the same familiar pastries and ice cream as they did in their childhood. I think it’s essential to try some of the “Western food with Chinese characteristics” (sorry not sorry) in Shanghai, as it plays a significant role in the local culinary history.
Made mainly with light whipped cream, LaoDaChang’s ice cream is very mild in flavor with only hints of sweetness, dairy, and walnut, but it yields the creamiest and silkiest consistency I’ve had with ice cream. The ice cream is less about the flavor but more about the mouthfeel (口感), which melts immediately and feels like a layer cream has been applied inside in your mouth. Personally, I can’t say this is the best ice cream I’ve ever had, but it’s a unique and historic taste of old Shanghai; ironically, this western dessert is the oldest and most historic item you’ll have on this food trip.
LaoDaChang’s other pastries are otherwise meh, relative to other popular bakeries in Shanghai (which there are now so many of). The curry beef puff pastry is like a samosa and croissant crossover, with more grease than the 2 combined. Most of its cream based desserts including the ice cream, éclaires, and Napoleons feature much lighter and less sweet cream, but it feels like eating frozen butter after they’ve sat in the refrigerated cabinet for a while.
Stop 6: Mooncakes at GuangMingCun
Address: 淮海中路588号 | 588 HuaiHai Middle Rd
This is the last stop, I promise.
Shanghainese style mooncakes are probably not what you associate immediately with mooncakes. They come with a pork filling, similar to what you’d find in a meat baozi, and a soft flaky yet floury skin. These mooncakes are a local ‘variant’ (I’m hesitant on using that word) that are popular among the Shanghai/Jiangsu/Zhejiang area. Unlike most other mooncakes that emerge only during Mid-Autumn festival, GuangMingCun (光明邨) sells them year-round.
I suppose that’s a promising sign. In fact according to Dianping, there is definitively no other place in the city that comes close in terms of meat mooncakes to GuangMingCun. It’s another local institution that’s been operating on HuaiHai Road for the last 70 years. In fact, GuangMingCun is so popular that it permanently has 2 lines outside it; the left line is for cooked foods to go, and the right line is for their mooncakes. During the neighborhood of the Mid-Autumn festival, the lines get long–like 8 hours long (I’m not exaggerating)–but in the off-season they should be a manageable 20 minutes or so.
These mooncakes are satisfyingly delicious, featuring a sweet juicy filling and a good bit of lard. Straight off comparing meat fillings of all the foods you’ve had today, this one in my opinion takes the crown. In fact, I feel it’s the epitome of why Chinese cuisine, especially in this area, is so obsessed with pork.
If you haven’t noticed, a large theme of Shanghainese food is meat, specifically pork, wrapped in some kind of flour. In fact, there are even more Shanghainese dishes I didn’t mention that are like this: wontons, Shanghai style tangyuan (which is savory and contains pork), potstickers, and much more. I think by now, especially after these mooncakes, you’ve figured out why that is.
I’m sorry for not introducing any veggies on this tour; they simply aren’t popular and are harder to sell by itself. If you feel something is off without fruits or veggies, a suggestion I’d have is to probably get a nice genuine fruit smoothie to drink along the way. Off the top of my head, there’s this Chinese bayberry (Yangmei, also known as waxberries) drink made with plenty bayberries from 奈雪の茶 near People’s Park. Although this drink is most likely seasonal, they should have other fruit drinks year-round.
Tried out the tour? Let me know what you thought by leaving a comment below! :)