Wednesday, January 31, 2007

City Diner

"You know how Americans are, Kiki. They all love to travel, and then they only want to meet other Americans and talk about how hard it is to get a decent hamburger."

-Hans, "Naked Lunch" (1991)

This update is about an American-style restaurant in Shanghai, City Diner. I've talked before about foreign food in Shanghai, basically I've written it all off as boring and too expensive. I still eat my fair share, and I think there's some OK places, although they all have their caveats. For instance I recently visited Moon River Diner, a chain with decent food that copies the feeling of walking into the set of Happy Days, with the 50s style decor and all that. A nice place, if nothing amazing, but the locations are inconvenient, and it's about ten times more expensive than the neighborhood places near where I live or work.

City Diner is a competitor, with one major advantage: it's located fairly near my apartment, alongside a somewhat seedy strip of Western bars. I've been past the area a few times, somehow I had missed that a place called City Diner was there. Or maybe I had seen it and just didn't think much of it. Come last week, I was about to pass it by, when I remembered reading that it had won a chili cook-off a few months back.

City Diner also goes for a Happy Days theme, with the old-style Coca-Cola ads and Rock Hudson movie posters, and Otis Redding on the jukebox. It even has a blackboard that helpfully lists the soup of the day as "soup."

But overall it's not over-the-top about it, and while there's the Happy Days elements, it's mostly subdued decor, shiny black tables, wide windows overlooking the street below, and so forth. I went for lunch on a weekday, it almost had the feel of an office - it was entirely foreigners with laptops.

Of course that's all ancillary to the meal, and here I don't want to equivocate: the food was awful. Ghastly. Not good. Dissatisfactory. Starting with the chili:

The chili came topped with a little cheese and sour cream and with a side of cornbread, like they do it in Texas! It was listed in the soup section of the menu, and that should have tipped me off: it was overly watery, and I was given a spoon to eat it with. Worse still, the taste was incredibly simple, and not at all spicy, even though the "5 alarm chili" name implies some kind of fire hazard. Being an American-style diner I reached over for the Tabasco Sauce, but they didn't have any.

It got me very curious. I'd rather eat canned chili with a dollop or two of hot sauce. How did this win any kind of competition? I theorize it was cooked a week before and had lost something in the meantime, and also that the competition was very weak, and also that the cook was working very loosely from the diner's recipe. There's probably a few other factors involved that skip my mind. After the first bite I considered asking for my money back, but I hate being one of "those guys."

There's a sucker born every minute, so still feeling hungry after the chili, I ordered pumpkin pie. I've actually been jonesing for some, I haven't had any pie in the last two years!

The pie was goopy and mediocre. It was a little strange to have only a dark butterscotch sauce and no whipped cream, but actually the butterscotch sauce was pretty good. Also the soda was free-refills, it was like being back in the US! They used a large pitcher though. It's easier for the waiter, but it let the soda go flat by the time he poured it.

All in all it cost me a locally-exorbitant $10, was incredibly boring, and there's no way I would ever return. Well...I did notice some onion-garlic bagels on the way out, maybe I'll get one to go someday.

I hope this update doesn't sound like an angry strike back at a restaurant I'm particularly upset about. City Diner was pretty much on par for Western restaurants in Shanghai: a familiar menu, too expensive, and with incompetent execution. There's better Western food to be found at Burger King, just a few minute's walk away.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Views of Amritsar

Amritsar is a city in the Punjab, about twenty miles away from the border with Pakistan. It's most famous as the center of the Sikh religion, and both the religion and the city's tourism center around Harimandir Sahib - the Golden Temple. I'll talk about that in a future update, for now here's a picture taken from my hotel window:

My first view was at night, a strange experience. There's plenty of cities you can apply a "city that never sleeps" label too, usually these cities have brightly lit downtown districts, rather exclusive, that operate late into the night. Amritsar was brightly lit throughout the night, but it was narrow, twisting, semi-paved roads, and the lights were a haphazard series of lamps hanging from storefront framing.

During the day, the streets are bustling and crowded with mostly pedestrian traffic:

And that's the main streets! When you get to the narrow side streets it can almost be a joke. The traffic can be so intense the crowds of people will wait by the side for the opportunity to squeeze through. It can take minutes for people to make their way across. Note also the bicycle rickshaws. It's an informal system, my sister told me where we wanted to go and negotiated a price. I recall it was about a quarter for a relatively short ride, and we probably got ripped off.

But I have to say these side streets were a lot of fun. It's a lot of shopping, and it's very colorful. Even though there aren't many foreigners, I didn't get lots of surprised looks or kids shouting random English phrases at me, the way it often happens in China.

Women's clothes are bright and beautiful elsewhere in India, but especially so in Amritsar. These side-street shops were stuffed with clothing stores:

And for an unpleasant subject: Hygenic standards were unbelievably low everywhere I went in India. I found myself going to the tourist places to eat, just because everwhere else was so obviously unfit. For instance, in Amritsar, a lot of street food had flies just hovering around. A little off the main roads in the central parts of town, there were open sewers. I don't want to show a picture of that, instead here is a pleasant pictures of some girls going about their business:

My immune system has been built up by spending more than a year in China, I often eat street food. I also look over food for obvious defects, I wash my hands and all that, and I consider myself of a very healthy constitution. Still I got spectacularly sick in Amristar. For three days I only had about two hours of energy in my body, the rest of the time I could only lay in bed or slumber around slowly, with a high fever being the most prominent symptom. Later, my friend who frequently goes to India tells me he's gotten sick every time he's been there.

Continuing on, there's many sites around town, such as other important Sikh religious shrines, and the nearby border with Pakistan. Being largely out of commission, though, I was limited. I did have a look at the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre site, which commemerates where hundreds of people were killed in 1919. It helped crystallize Indian resistance to English occupation. It's now a pleasant park, where I enjoyed the people watching:

In addition to the people-watching, there were some beautiful flowers, the likes of which I've never seen before!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Final Word on Bombay

I could talk all day about Bombay, but I'm running out of interesting pictures and this blog is nominally about Shanghai, so this will be the last update - there's a little more to say on Amritsar and Delhi, though.

First of all, while I showed a few pictures of the Gateway of India, that's just one example of a legacy of old colonial-era buildings that dot the area. Shanghai also has impressive colonial-era buildings, but Bombay's are much grander. For instance, the Victorian-era train station:

The design elements seems simultaneously familiar and new to me, I suppose it would be called neo-Gothic? I normally associate the style with a pristine museum, not something that actually feels in-use and alive. Here's a short video of street traffic in front of the station:

Cricket is a Bombay obsession, the tabloid newspapers kept talking about the sport, it would come up in advertisements over and over. Popular stars endorse products, and also it's shown as a typical activity of a healthy young person. I often came across games, while walking and driving around Bombay. I don't know much about cricket except that is seems to involve wearing white clothes.

While I don't travel expecting international-grade 5 star hotel-bars, I admit I found the constant crowded poverty of Bombay a little overwhelming, and decided to take a break in what I understand is the biggest, snootiest mall in the city, Phoenix Mills. It was one McDonald's, a few dollar stores, an international-goods grocery store, and a few empty boutiques...while I saw it's undergoing a major expansion, in Shanghai it would be just a normal neighborhood shopping center. Oh, this was about the only place in Bombay I saw other foreigners.

Finally I can't empasize enough that Bombay (and the rest of India) is without doubt the most visually splendid place I've ever been, and I've been around!

If these photographs don't quite match up to what I saw, it's because of my lack of talent of picking out the interesting photographs from a crowded area, and that the cheapish P&S cameras I brought weren't quite up to the job - particularly my Canon A510 which I ditched early on. I'd recommend any traveller to India to bring a small and quick camera, and then bring an ultra-zoom, or even better, a DSLR. An anti-haze filter wouldn't hurt. Have a look around Flickr's Pictures from India, wow!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Slums of Bombay

I hate to add to the stereotypes of India: I already have an update about cows, and now I have an update about omnipresent slums. At the same time, it's something I found shocking about Bombay. This picture is typical: It seems to be the camp of an extended family, there's kids playing on the trees or taking a bath, women selling small produce, clothes drying...

There's different classes of destitute, from the rich-destitute who are part of a larger encampment, to the medium-destitute like above, who stake out a plot of land, to the destitute-destitute, who just sleep on the sidewalk:

Some of the houses don't appear all that much better. This picture was taken directly across the street from the city's toniest mall, it's wildly overcrowded and the roof seems to be made of garbage:

The picture at top showed women selling fruits and vegetables, I assume it's bought from wholesellers and then re-sold at a very slight profit. This kind of petty commerce was everywhere in India, to a much greater extent than in Shanghai. Some of these markets can get incredibly crowded and active, even when they don't seem to be near anything else.

For the most part it seems to be women's work, while the men work somewhere downtown. I should also mention that even the fanciest shops in Bombay amount to mom-and-pop stores, and established markets only seem half a step up from street-side sellers.

A common thing to see is people selling flowers, they're often made into garlands, lei-like chains which often honor dead relatives or gods. There can be a strange contrast between the beauty of the garlands and the ugliness of the enviornment.

Women's clothes are also extremely colorful and beautiful, and even women who are I figured to be incredibly poor were dressed gorgeously.

Shanghai has a larger population, much of which is also very poor, but has nothing to compare to this - Shanghai feels a lot more organized, whereas Bombay gave the feeling of constantly being in the middle of a very large crowd, or perhaps of a massively over-grown, over-stuffed village.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Chairman Mao Hometown-style Food

A quick update on a restaurant I frequent and enjoy: Chairman Mao's Hometown-style Food!

I've mentioned before that Mao Zedong's picture is a little rare to be seen in Shanghai, outside of paper money and products aimed at tourists. There are other places you can half-expect to see it though, and one of them is at Hunanese Restaurants - Mao Zedong was born and raised in Hunan province. While most restaurants don't specify Mao Zedong in the name, a fair number will have a prominent painting of Mao:

From what I understand, Mao Zedong repped the HN his entire life, speaking Hunan dialect (not Mandarin) and eating mostly Hunanese food. In that regards I bear a striking resemblance to Mao Zedong, as I tend to eat Hunanese food four or five times a week. I prefer the stronger flavors of Hunan food to Shanghai-style food. It's much like neighboring Sichuanese food, except Shanghai's Sichuanese food is generally over-adapted to Shanghai tastes.

This talk of different cuisines brings up a point: the difference between Chinese region's cuisines can be very substantial, with Northerners eating lots of noodles, and Cantonese eating anything that moves. Actually I went to the restaurant with a few people, one of them born and raised in the far North of China. I figured I'd just let her order, being Chinese she would have a better idea of what to get. But, she wasn't even familiar with 75% of what was on the menu!

You can see from above, it's chicken soup, some garlic sprouts with pork, some really fatty meat - I was told it's good for your brain, and that it was Mao Zedong's favorite food, huh! Oh yeah, being winter time and all, they have dog dry hot pot, where the dog meat is roasted in a pan over a fire. I want to try it, but the people I'm with keep refusing.

From the picture below, definitely the thing I like least about Chinese food is that they often serve the bones intact with the meat. You're expected to put it all in your mouth and spit out the bones, it's a gross and slow process. That was true in Oakland as well, I would just not order those sorts of dishes, nobody complained. Now my "no small bones" policy is a bit of a pet peeve for the people I eat food with!

The restaurant isn't my favorite Hunanese place - actually there's a much better one immediate to my apartment. But I like the casual atmosphere, the food is pretty good (if a little inconsistent), and I usually end up spending less that $5. And most importantly, it's right near the busy People's Square, on Yunnan Lu near Fuzhou Lu - whereas the other area restaurants I know either aren't that good or aren't that cheap. Oh, and it has a mostly-translated English menu, if this update interests anybody enough to check it out.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bombay's Elephanta Island

I didn't actually know anything about Bombay before I got there. I had had a very good experience with an earlier trip to Korea, where I just copied a free but very basic city guide from Wikitravel, then got the city's free tourist brochures and went by that. The plan didn't work very well in Bombay - the airport was something like a warehouse and certainly didn't have an information center giving away free booklets. I gathered from the Wikitravel entry that the center of Bombay's tourism was the Gateway of India - a large Victorian arch built almost a century ago, in celebration of Queen Victoria visiting colonial India. I has seen it before, it was on the DVD cover for the movie "Bombay."

There's a lot of tourists about the arch, and a lot of touts selling things, but not much in the way of a tourist industry presence. Anyway, while it can't be seen from the above picture, the opposite site of the arch is Bombay Harbor. A lot of the tourists are there to take boats to Elephanta Island. It's a strange contrast of frantic selling of the different boat tour options, and people milling about, waiting for the next boat.

This is the Gateway of India, taken from the boat to Elephanta Island. The Taj hotel is right next to it. A lot of the boats are just parked, I visited India in early November, outside the main tourist season. There's still more ahead, the boat actually had to take a really circutious route to get around all of them.

The island is about six miles from the harbor, and it takes an hour to get there. So slow! There isn't an option to pay more for a faster boat. The ride takes you past a mildly busy commercial harbor, and the Indian Navy dockyards. Once I arrived, there's a five or ten minute walk from the dock to the island proper. It's long enough that a lot of people opt to take a toy train back and forth, instead.

There's no elephants on the island, the name came from a statue that has since been moved to a museum in Bombay. At the top of a very long series of steps up through tourist touts, though, there were a lot of...monkeys!

The ones I saw were urban scavengers, but they were pretty timid, and would maintain a short distance from people. The reason why the people were there were for the Elephanta Caves, a series of caves with stone sculptures of Hindu religious imagery.

The caves were forgotten over, and scholars still don't agree when the statues were carved - sometime around the ninth century.

The caves were re-discovered by the Portugese in the 17th century. They smashed a number of the sculptures, it's a pity! Also the caves were decorated in some concrete staircases and doorways and so forth, that are supposed to look period I guess. They're really ugly and are crumbling away, which confuses the whole issue.

The island has a few small villages on it, but all I saw was the associated tourist industry, and a few far-off glances of people going about their business...

There were also some fishermen nearby the dock, I assume villagers from the island:

And that was what I saw of the island. Beautiful, but I'll admit I was expecting something more. Maybe an hour long boat ride builds up your anticipation. Here's another picture of the arch, with the sun setting.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Jin Yuan Tea House

I'm headed back to Shanghai for this update, to the cozy confines of a teahouse near my apartment in the Jing'an Temple area. It's a two-story teahouse on the corner of Beijing Lu and Wanhangdu Lu. Recently I've been going a lot, it's a casual environment and a convenient place to meet people. With the couches and the cushioned chairs, it feels something like a communal living room.

This is flower tea, the red bits add a bitter flavor. It's probably my favorite of the teas I've had there. I also like how it comes with a special ceramic pot-holder, there's a candle underneath keeping the tea warm:

I'm no tea expert, but I drink my fair share, I'll splurge on the more expensive teas at times. Still I think the tea here is consistently some of the best I've had. It's a little on the expensive side, compared to the other places I've been - a pot goes for three to five dollars. Like other tea houses, the tea is served with the leaves or ingredients left intact. Then, the waitress either gives a mug of boiling hot water to add, or she'll come around periodicially to refill the water for you. I think it just depends how energetic the waitress is feeling at the moment. Actual tea (as in tea-leaf tea) comes in a less photogenic china pot, but here's another picture. It's some Ginger tea, the pot is stuffed full of fruits, ginger, and other unidentifiable things I assume are ingredients. In the background is a large thermos of hot water, along with a milk tea.

These photos were taken when there weren't many other customers around. It can get busy, and I'll admit the other customers can bug me sometimes. Mostly, I'm going to study lingo, maybe to enjoy the delicate flavors of flower&bitter-stuff tea, and the people around me will be puffing down on cigarettes! Yuck. It's busiest around meal times. They have food that strikes me as pretty average and more of an after-thought to the tea, but it gets a fair crowd coming in. When it's too busy, sometimes I'll retreat to the upstairs. It gives a nice view of a busy but unspectacular intersection:

Maybe talking about my frequent visits to a teahouse in Shanghai makes it sound like I've gone super local-style. But honestly, there's not all that many teahouses in Shanghai. On the other hand, the area has one cafe after another cafe, it's like being back in San Francisco!

Update 11/4/2008 - This place (along with many of the shops nearby) has been knocked down and re-located to the boring Pudong district.