Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lao Kele

Lao Kele is a restaurant that I heard about through the excellent Like a Local blog, which has tips on favorite restaurants in Shanghai and what to eat. The writer mentioned it as his favorite restaurant, putting out old-fashioned, authentic Chinese cooking. A strong enough recommendation that I had to try it.

While I basically agree that it's a very good restaurant, I'm going to have to take quick exception: the restaurant serves fried cheese sticks. No really. So on some level I just can't call it strictly Chinese cuisine. Rather, it's a Chinese take on Western cuisine, it reminded me a lot of the fusion noodle restaurants in the Bay Area, generally I'd see them in shopping malls and so forth. That's a pretty negative comparison, but here's a quick look at about a third of the menu, I could completely imagine seeing the exact same menu back in California. It's about 8 kuai to the dollar:

Similarly to a mall chain, Lao Kele also has a bright, clean, cafeteria-like interior:

But I don't want to pick on the restaurant, just point out the somewhat eerie resemblance. The food is most important, and here I think Lao Kele is excellent. There's a range of fried appetizers, including the cheese, which is served with Thousand Island Dressing as a dipping sauce! Much better was this fried squid:

The noodles are hand made and very high quality, much better than would be available at the California mall. There's a variety, spinach noodles and carrot noodles and egg noodles and so forth. The meat generally still has the bones attached to it, you spit them out while eating, I hate that. Anyway, here's egg noodle with chicken in spices, #316 on the take-out menu above:

I don't have a picture, but there's also very high-quality fruit juices and smoothies going for about a dollar. I've been three or four times, and everything I've ordered has been excellent. Except for the cheese sticks, but my expectations were low for that one anyway. The location is convenient, right near People's Park at Huanghe Lu and Fengyang Lu - so for me, I can take the #2 Subway there, and it's just a minute or two walk North from the #9 exit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Loco Moco: A Quick Second Take.

While I want to avoid this blog being a Foreign Food Information Repository, here's a re-examination of both City Diner, a prominent American Restaurant, and Loco Moco, a Hawaiian food that any monkey with a skillet should be able to cook correctly. I'll steal a picture from 'Ono Kine Grindz:

I happened to come across a menu for City Diner and noted that they offered Loco Moco for breakfast, very interesting. I wouldn't call it a breakfast food but I guess theoretically it could be eaten in the morning, and anyway City Diner advertises they serve breakfast all day. The food was even described as being "onolicious" which I guess was promising enough to make me look past that the food from my previous visit was expensive and totally hopeless. Really the restaurant was so bad I couldn't imagine any way it could get better, it would be best just to burn the restaurant to the ground and start over.

Eventually when I felt I could in good conscious buy an $8 Loco Moco I came in and made my order, this is what I was served:

Huh, from the picture it seems to be a platter of steak-and-eggs, like they do it in Texas! With a little bit of rice on the side, too. I did some minor surgery to make it more authentic, dumping all the ingredients on top of each other:

That's better, but still the proportions were off, it was dry, and the tastes weren't quite right - especially with the macaroni salad, which was prepared like a German Potato Salad and didn't use any mayonnaise. On the other hand, it was enough food that I basically skipped dinner and only wanted a half-lunch the next day.

So I have to recommend giving it a miss, too bad! I did notice one interesting thing, that the very good Gordon Biersch Marzen, and the decent-if-light Kona Longboard Lager, were both available there - I haven't seen either at stores yet. Along with Dead Guy Ale, there seems to be a recent trickle of American micro-brews getting imported, which is nothing if not excellent news.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Few Days in Nanjing

Nanjing is a couple hours from Shanghai - geographically it's in the center of China, but the name means "Southern Capital," historically it was the capital of a divided Southern China, fifteen hundred years ago. It was again a Ming Dynasty capital five hundred years ago, then a capital of the short-lived Taiping Rebellion one hundred forty years ago, and then the capital of the Republic of China, before and after the Japanese invasion.

I won't go into the historic details, I just listed what I did to show that it's an ancient, important city. When I visited, I didn't know what to expect, but perhaps a lesser Beijing or Seoul, which are filled with ancient temples and palaces. But I felt it was more similar to Shanghai - generally modern, with historic sites scattered about.

I had put off a visit because it's a five hour train ride, what a pain. However there's a new train service going to Nanjing, it looks something like a French LGV train and does the trip in only two hours. It's also a very comfortable ride, the downside being that it's $12 each way, whereas the slower, older trains start at $2.50 according to this nifty if unfortunately Chinese-only train website. Travelling about Nanjing is also easy, there's a brand-new Subway system that goes straight from the train station to downtown.

A lot of the main sites to Nanjing revolve around its more recent history, and that includes memorials to the Nanking Massacre, Dr. Sun Yatsen's mausoleum, and the Taiping Rebellion. I wasn't quite feeling history when I went, so I either gave such places a miss or just had a cursory look. A lot of it is lost on me because I am still way more ignorant of Chinese history than I should be, and what I did see often wasn't very well presented for a clueless English-language tourist. Here's a small teahouse, located inside the re-constructed Taiping capital building - the reconstruction had its own history, as a government building of the Republic of China.

But the obvious highlight of the city is to the North-East of the downtown, with the Xuanwu Lake Park, and the adjacent Purple Mountain. Xuanwu Lake Park is reached by passing by the Jiming Temple (pictured at the top) and some scenic, gigantic, Ming Dynasty walls. These walls don't form a complete circle, but the large majority still exists, and surrounds a huge area of the downtown.

The park is a big lake, with a thin strip of land that meanders through it - it's nothing historic or amazing, but it's a pleasant walk - with a couple of caveats. First, the park is absurdly large, but when I went all the shops were closed, and there weren't any working water fountains, and I had been walking all day, and fell into some kind of panic mode. Secondly is, the pollution in the area is thick and disgusting, and combines with all the fog to make an impenetrable haze - there might have been great views, but it was hard to tell.

The pollution is more of a problem at Purple Mountain, where there's a half-hour ski-lift to the top of the mountain. It's a fun ride, but then when I go to the top I realized it was almost impossible to look back down at the city - I could also see that the nearby mountains held the pollution in. Another interesting perspective was the the very large city seemed to be built almost directly against thick mountain forests. Here's the best shot I got:

I've mentioned before that Shanghai is in the midst of a crazy building boom. Well that news is outdated. Shanghai still has a lot of building going on, including some extremely high-level projects. But it seems to have calmed down a bit, and there's no longer a new building going up on seemingly every single street. Whereas, going to Nanjing seemed to be like stepping into a time machine, and visiting this mythical quick-building Shanghai of 2005. These buildings generally looked a lot more bland and cheap than the buildings going up in Shanghai, though:

The downtown was the typical Chinese strip of brightly-lit shops and malls - which can be fun for a visitor, but I've gotten more than enough of that in Shanghai. More interesting was a long strip of restaurants and shops near Nanjing University. Four friends visiting from the US, and I, went to one place that looked nice - it served Nanjing cuisine. Everything was so cheap, I assumed the portions were small, and ordered to match. I came to realize that in truth, food in Nanjing is much cheaper than in Shanghai, and for less than $20, I ended up ordering a completely absurd amount, we ate less than half of it. This is just a part of the feast - note the roast duck heads up front! The food was excellent, the highlights being the country-style tofu and the pumpkin soup:

A little quirk on Nanjing is that even though I looked in a number of places, it was impossible to find Diet Coke - which would definitely be a major crimp on my lifestyle. I also never saw any Chinese beers except for the cheapest, lightest versions, the kind I wouldn't ever order in Shanghai. That was negated by running into the kind of bar I like: dark and dirty!

So while I can't say Nanjing is my favorite place in China, I definitely think it's worth a weekend trip, especially when factoring in the nearby Qixia Temple complex, which I'll talk about within the next week.

And for those in China dealing with blogspot and Wikipedia frequently being blocked and un-blocked for no apparent reason, the Lost Laowai blog shows how to set Firefox to automatically get past the Great Firewall.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Xintiandi and Shikumen

My last two updates have been about Old Shanghai, its historic Shikumen houses, and Shanghai's not-unwarranted proclivity for tearing them down. An alternative, of sorts, can be found at Shanghai's Xintiandi. It's an area downtown immediate to the major shopping street of Huaihai Lu, and has an interesting history: it's billed as the meeting place of the first Chinese Communist party meeting. So rather than tearing down the historic site to build yet another shopping district, the meeting place was left untouched and the surroundings were converted into something that put the shikumen to a new purpose - an elite shopping center, acting as a dramatic counterpoint to the origin of the Communist party I guess.

I'm a big fan of re-purposing old buildings. It adds character to a city, it's also frequently served as the basis for urban revivals. However with Xintiandi my feelings are mixed. While the basic idea is great, it's also true that shikumen are claustrophobic. A direct conversion of a shikumen would be nothing but small spaces, narrow alleys, and a layout that would make it difficult to casually browse. It would be a little too quirky, some modification is inevitable. However I think Xintiandi took it way too far in the opposite direction, leading to this:

The difference above is obvious, it's impossible to find such wide spaces in a real shikumen. Xintiandi is long and narrow with a very wide pathway in middle, with shops and restaurants on either side. Really the feel is the same as any other outdoor mall in the US, but with a light shikumen motif, with touches such as colored bricks and decorative doors directly off the street. There's nothing wrong with that by itself, and there's plenty of Shikumen being torn down to make way for skyskrapers. On the other hand, Xintiandi bills itself as a restoration rather than a ground-up rebuild, and its success has led to other projects seeking to adopt the same approach to preservation.

But it is financially successful, and particularly popular with Hong Kong tourists. It's the most elite shopping areas in town - and one that few foreign residents of Shanghai particularly care for, because the restaurants are very expensive and often mediocre, and just because it's generally incredibly uncool. Although I did have an excellent if entirely froo-froo meal at the fusion restaurant, T8:

On an entirely different note, if there's anybody in Shanghai who might be interested in jamming either old-school Hawaiian Music or stupid indie pop, please either leave a response or give me a mail at jeff oaktowncrack com.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Fate of Shikumen Districts

This is to follow up on my update about Old Shanghai, and the Shikumen that define the area. A favorite area is in the center of the historical old city, south of Yuyuan Gardens, where a large network of narrow roads and lanes criss-cross haphazardly. It's a dense and confusing jumble, it feels like nowhere else in Shanghai, and it's all getting torn down, inevitably to make way for massive apartment towers like those in the background:

I have mixed opinions. As stated in the last update, I'd never even consider living in a classical shikumen or row house. They're an old style of housing that don't allow for privacy or often even running water. They were built to last a much shorter time than they've actually lasted, and they're relatively low-density housing on incredibly expensive real estate, in a rapidly growing city. At the same time, they have a strong and distinct character, whereas I can almost guarantee that the apartment complex going up will basically be a concrete box, with no real character to it other than a few tacky pseudo-Grecian statues littered about the grounds.

Wandering around the area has an eerie feeling to it. There's piles of debris or shells of houses with only rubble inside, the area feels something like a bomb went off:

The area is being destroyed bit by bit, perhaps it has to do with relocating the current residents. How they are relocated varies, but usually they're given an apartment way the hell out in Pudong somewhere. But there's other schemes, and I've been to modern tony apartment complexes which also have a number of residents who lived on the location before the apartments were built.

Oddly enough, the neighborhoods still seem pretty vital, people hurriedly going about their lives:

But there's reminders that it's temporary, and as on the right, many of the buildings have the character for "demolish" written on the side.