Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hawaiian Food in Shanghai

The Title is a subject that holds great promise - Hawaiian food in Shanghai! Who couldn't love it! On my recent trip to Honolulu I did my own unofficial "Super Size Me 2," by eating Plate Lunches for basically every single meal. To establish the proper context, here's some old-school food, from a Hawaiian mall's food court. It's a combination plate of pork, chicken long rice, lomilomi salmon, and poi:

And here's a "chili moco," which dumps chili over a hamburger steak, egg, and rice - a normal loco moco has gravy instead of chili. It was a special at the local chain, Zippy's.

Anyway I love the food and it's one of the many kinds of restaurants I'd love to see open in Shanghai. On the rare occasions I cook, that's the kind of food I make, and I even dream of opening a local style restaurant, maybe right next to the Vietnamese-sandwich & pho restaurant I'll open next door. I always thought of it as just a daydream, so I was shocked and surprised to be walking on Sinan Lu, next to Xianghshang Lu and Fuxing Park, and come across "Tammy's Sweet Dream." The Aloha shirts and floral motif made me curious, so I looked at the menu and saw it was a Hawaiian restaurant!

The menu didn't look entirely promising: a lot of these foods are very basic, but the prices were a little high - six or seven dollars. It was missing basic favorites like katsu. Also, what is fish lau-lau? Lau Lau is made from pork. I had a seat, the insides were nice and new and mostly empty, although I had made it a very late lunch. I should also mention a corner of the room with a star wars motif - a lot of small framed Star Wars posters. But mostly it was white and vaguely tiki:

I got the loco moco, it was like the chef had read a brief description of the dish but never actually eaten one himself. The main problem was the almost total lack of gravy, making the dish extremely dry. There was also some cabbage mixed in, which was just weird. Finally, the dish was very small, the amount I got was more like a snack. If my complaints sound petty, loco moco is neither a difficult nor an expensive dish to prepare!

About ten minutes after I got my dish, my friend got hers, it was hulihuli chicken, a grilled and specially flavored chicken. It didn't really get the hulihuli treatment, it was just normal grilled chicken.

So all in all I thought this restaurant was a big disappointment. It was more authentic than the Hawaiian joints that serve pineapple hamburgers, but the food was so poorly interpreted that I'd really have to be jonesing for Hawaiian food before I'd drop by.

Update 11/30/07 - I never did return and I guess I never will - according to Christopher St. Cavish's always entertaining food article in SH Magazine, the restaurant has closed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Yuyuan Lu Fashion Plaza

Beijing Lu is a large-ish street immediate to my apartment. I've heard it called the Northern Barrier of Shanghai - although really it's about in the middle of the city, a cool foreigner has no use to ever go north of it. I'd love to be so cool, but being cool would just be too much of an imposition on me. All the better restaurants near my place are on the North side, I'd probably end up eating McDonald's everyday. Near Jing'an, one block south is Yuyuan Lu. It's a bit of a foreigner-centric area, at least during the day: there's also a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a Burger King, and Malone's, a popular foreigner pub that my friend insists I only call "The Vietnam Veteran Bar."

On the same street, somewhere past the Burger King but before the Vietnam Veteran Bar, lies the Yuyan Lu Fashion Plaza. There's always a few food stalls in front of the plaza, offering a bunch of cheap snacks. In the last few months it's become more crowded, I theorize with vendors who used to sell their food on Wujiang Lu. There was also a pretty decent Xinjiang-style noodle shack that closed around the same time they all moved in.

The actual plaza is a series of small booths, with a high tin roof that half-protects the structure from rain. I imagine if the roof was more solid, it'd be harder to brace from the wind. This is one of about five rows of shops. There's a food counter to the immediate left - it sells spicy soup.

Half the business of Shanghai boils down to hair. Not far from this plaza, it's normal for young girls on the street to be harassed by trainee hairstylists aggressively pushing cut-rate haircuts. For that matter, there's also a nearby "hairstylist" joint with red lights and girls in not so much clothing. Anyway this picture shows a bunch of extensions, and I really wish I knew a girl cool enough to pull off aqua blue hair extensions. There's a small beauty shop nearby.

But of course the main attraction is the clothes. The clothes here are nothing fancy, they're often laid out one after the other. In fact the whole plaza feels something like a huge bargain bin. The prices reflect it: the prices on these shirts are marked 29 kuai, which is something like $3.75, and I have to believe the price can be bargained down quite a bit.

But that's pure conjuncture on my part, as none of these clothes would fit a tall person like me, and I don't even try. Even worse is the shoes: when I tell people my shoe size, they'll initially think I'm making an absurd joke. The largest shoe size that can normally be found is maybe a size 9.

I don't have to say that cheap clothes plus China equates to a bootleg item or two: a lot of the clothes have the brand names on them - I believe those are fake Converse above, and certainly Disney didn't approve these shirts.

Of course Chinese English on clothing is vaguely amusing:

I could go on and on with racks of clothing, but that gets old pretty quick! There's also a few interesting stores selling things unrelated to clothes, like toystores, or froo-froo house decorations.

Out front are a few old ladies with sewing machines, who make on-the-spot alterations to the clothing, pretty cool! This sewing machine looks like it belongs in some kind of museum, I believe it's a foot-crank model. Some of the other sewers use electronic machines though.

And for all the workers, there's a few boilers that dispense hot water, mostly it's for making instant noodles, or for tea - the leaves stay in the jar, and the water gets added a number of times. And people drink hot water plain in Shanghai - it's such a basic thing but the concept never even occurred to me before I arrived in China.

Update 11/4/2008 - This place has been knocked down, it's currently a pile of rubble but a 5-star hotel is sure to come up soon.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Another Word on Suzhou

Suzhou is a city about an hour's train ride from Shanghai. I've been a few times, and I wrote a bit on Suzhou before. I find Suzhou an intriguing alternate take on Shanghai: despite being so near Shanghai, and also having a very large population, the feel is extremely different - among other things, it maintains more historic sites, it feels more like a city built on a river, and it doesn't have the shock-and-awe skyscraper districts like Pudong.

But I'll admit I didn't stay for long, just enough to get a feel and meet a friend I hadn't seen in a while. Eventually I'll make a long trip of it and have a wonderful take on the city and how it compares and contrasts to Shanghai.

From what I gather, metropolitan Suzhou is divided into three areas: the historic center, a more modern area that resembles a humbler version of Shanghai, and districts dominated by foreign-invested business parks. Naturally the historic center is of the most interest for a tourist like me. Shanghai doesn't really have extended neighborhoods with a traditional feel, the way Suzhou does. It's all very quaint, in a way perhaps a tourist to China would hope for:

Most of the area is just normal people going about their lives, but of course there are areas that are thoroughly tourist-ized, although perhaps not as professionally as Shanghai. As a trite example, on a hot day there were a number of vendors on a particular street selling drinks, none of which were refrigerated or even chilled. It goes along with yin-yang medical beliefs, but it was a bummer for me.

Suzhou is most well-known for a number of gardens. Rather than a Europe-style garden with kids playing on the lawn, it's a more whimsical take, where certain vantage points allow visitors to see sculpted landscapes, punctuated by understated buildings, bridges, and so forth. This one, the Humble Administrator's Garden, is very large, but it was also very crowded - I think it's best to choose a time when there'll be as few visitors as possible, or just to seek out less crowded gardens. To me the garden felt a little too busy, and only half-restored.

I then took a very long bus across town to see the Cold Mountain Temple. I got there after it had already closed, but when a monk saw that I was a foreigner he let me go in and have a look! There wasn't much to see in the dark, though. I was told it's famous for a poem written about it. Because it's short I'll copy it here: it's by Zhang Ji, A Night Mooring near Maple Bridge, and from thirteen hundred years ago:

While I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost;
Under the shadows of maple-trees a fisherman moves with his torch;
And I hear, from beyond Suzhou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.

According to the Chinese tourist board, the poem can lead to Buddhist Enlightenment! Although my preferred method remains putting a shoe on your head.

More impressive was a high-arching humpback bridge nearby, just like the US cliche of Asian gardens.

It was getting late, so I had dinner in Suzhou's downtown, which is concentrated, with one restaurant after the next. It looks fun, and was lit up like Vegas. Truth be told, both the dinner and my earlier lunch were pretty good - in particular the local specialties like eel that I thought were better than any equivalent Shanghainese version I've eaten.