Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Din Tai Fung - Expensive Xiaolongbao

This is yet another (and certainly not the last) of my great xiaolongbao taste-test. Xiaolongbao is a Shanghai specialty - a simple, delicate, and excellent snack that breaks down to a thin flour wrapper with meat and "soup" inside, dipped in Chinese vinegar.

While so far I've been speaking about the best restaurants in terms of my favorite food website, Din Tai Fung doesn't get particularly high marks on the site - reviews are positive but often lukewarm, with good service and high prices being frequently mentioned. On the other hand, expat site after expat site raves about Din Tai Fung's xiaolongbao, and the always-fun-to-read Christopher St. Cavish, restaurant reviewer for SH Magazine, even named their pork & crab xiaolongbao as the #1 dish to try in Shanghai.

Anyway, it's hard to directly compare this restaurant to say, Jia Jia Tang Bao. While that restaurant amounts to a dive with a line, Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain, feels like an upscale restaurant. It's the type of place you might meet a business person, or do something really serious like that. There's a few branches of the chain throughout Shanghai, they're all in upscale locations, and the Lujiazui branch even has a nice view of the Huangpu River and the local skyscrapers:

They serve a number of dishes from various Chinese styles, with a Hong Kong and a Shanghai slant to what's on offer. Of course the xiaolongbao are the reason I went, and they actually have three versions on offer: standard xiaolongbao, smaller xiaolongbao served in a pork broth, and a xiaolongbao where the insides are a mixture of pork and crab. It's worth mentioning they were all expensive, going for around thirty five kuai an order, with their orders being smaller than what's generally available at other xiaolongbao restaurants. They end up being around ten times more expensive than other places.

But I'm willing to pay $5 for quality, and I didn't let the price bother me for these smaller xiaolongbao. They're about half the size of a normal xiaolongbao, and the idea is to put them in the broth, and then eat them as if a soup. It's enjoyed on a different level than standard xiaolongbao, with the flavors centered off the flavorful, rich, and gingered pork broth absorbed by the xiaolongbao's skin, but I enjoyed them:

But the main event was the xiaolongbao. Initial impressions were good: the vinegar was of the perfect strength, and even had sliced ginger in the dipping dish, the way I remember loving at Oakland's Shanghai Restaurant. It's subtler than one might expect, but gives the vinegar a better flavor:

Additionally, the skin of the xiaolongbao was obviousy very thin and meticulously prepared, while still managing to hold all the soup in. For xiaolongbao fans, the huge amount of folds on top is a thing of beauty:

But it all came crashing down after that. The insides of the xiaolongbao are really nothing at all special: the pork is dry and the soup is flavorless, and in the end the wrapper and the vinegar are mere accompaniments to the meat and the soup. I wasn't convinced the xiaolongbao were any better than that of another Taiwanese chain, the fast food restaurant Yong He Da Wang.

The small xiaolongbao in soup are still excellent, though. And the restaurant is clearly much classier than most any other place with xiaolongbao on the menu. So it might be worth having a look, even if I personally don't plan to ever go again. Also, the restaurant has branches in LA, Toronto, Sydney, and a number of larger cities throughout Asia.

Update 9/1/2009 - I went to the one in Arcadia (a suburb of LA) last year. A little expensive, a little salty, a little parking lot, and the atmosphere is cheap and old, but the xiaolongbao taste exactly the same. Decent xiaolongbao is hard to find in America, so even if I strongly recommend against this place in Shanghai, it's probably worth checking out for someone who happens to find themselves living in or driving through Arcadia.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Zhapu Lu Food Street

This update will be a short break from what I'm guessing will be a long-ish succession of updates about Shanghai food and other parts of China. It's about Zhapu Lu Food Street, an interesting old-time street slightly North of the area touched upon in my earlier updates, on the area North of the Bundand the beautifully filmed "The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt" . This update will feature pretentious black & white photography, because I wanted to try out Lucky, a Cheap Chinese film, and see what it looked like.

Zhapu Lu is directly north of the Bund, very near the waterfront, and in general is one of my favorite places in Shanghai to go for a stroll It can take a bit of digging, but in the nearby area there's a lot of great restaurants, interesting malls, historic buildings, parks, views of the Bund, and so forth - the sign on the right is a bad example, but I kind of like it. These side-streets are also the place to get snacks. Zhapu Lu is a food street, but unlike Shanghai's other food streets, it's almost entirely restaurants. Here's a small snack shack on Sichuan Lu:

The area's restaurants are most visible at the south end of the food street, which is just slightly north of the Suzhou River.

In this area there's also a few illicit massage parlors and "stylists", I didn't get a good picture, but generally they have pink neon lights and a bunch of young women hanging out in their underwear. It's all very much out in the open. These sort of places aren't rare in Shanghai, but to have it on such a main drag strikes me as a little strange.

Alongside the road are some shikumen. These apartment buildings share a lot of common space and don't offer much in the way of privacy, with doors and windows directly against the common footpaths. In a way I felt like I was trespassing - I generally don't like to walk around shikumen even though I think they're very interesting. They're made of brick and it can feel a bit like a claustrophobic maze inside:

See the shikumen and many of these older buildings while you still can, however. While the pace of development is a little slower here than might be expected, and I have to believe a number of the buildings will be protected as historical architecture, it's clear that the beautiful semi-decrepit buildings are being replaced by ugly new ones:

But again, there's a number of older buildings, both large and small, and it's easy to remember that in the 1930s, this was one of the swanker parts of town. Here's an attractive older apartment building, a few blocks North of the main restaurant cluster alongside Zhapu Lu:

As with many other historic older buildings around Shanghai, the city has put up a sign in Chinese and English, explaining a little about the historical significance:

Even the mundane can be interesting. This building has a convenience store on the first story and cheap apartments above, but the art-deco facade, the small statue above the entrance, and the "Li Ming Restaurant" up top, hints that the place must have once been a high-end restaurant:

Really Zhapu Lu isn't very long in itself, and is probably worth visiting for its restaurants, or as part of a larger ramble about the area. As the street goes south of the Bund, it changes names to Huqiu Lu, which is also interesting to walk along. Not only for the Seagull Camera offices & display room just south of the Suzhou River, which I'll talk about sooner or later, but also for the gigantic 30's era buildings:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Stopping to Smell the Flowers in Fuxing Park

I wandered through Fuxing Park today, which I love but haven't visited in far too long - and was very impressed at the rose garden near the Western Entrance. I'll attach a few pictures, and recommend people to make a look-see while they can!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dali Old City

Much too long ago, I wrote about briefly visiting the city of Kunming, the largest city of Yunnan, a province in South-Western China. While I liked the city, I was only there for a half-day before continuing on to Dali.

Dali is a city dominated by the local tourist industry. That sounds like a terrible place to visit, but actually the city was fun, and anyway it largely functioned as a jumping-off point to visiting other sites in the area. There's also a "new" city - while I only drove past city, it looked like any other third-tier Chinese city one might see.

I arrived in the morning, and walked to my hotel down the main tourist drag, Fuzhou Lu, all the buildings were restaurants or net cafes or fruit vendors or convenience stores, the sort of things useful to a tourist. There were no cars, there were trees along the road, and there was even a very small stream along the side of the road. All in all about as pleasant as a main tourist drag can get:

In kind of a strange contrast, a lot of these tourist shops still looked like the traditional buildings, re-purposed for tourists. It didn't come off as gimmicky or fake, just as the natural product of a tourist boom so sudden that nobody thought to tear everything down:

Wandering off the main streets, there were still a lot of private houses of an older style:

Additionally, the city walls had been re-built, and the city was punctuated by a number of pagodas and so forth, the were all lit up at night:

Really surprisingly, this city was probably the biggest backpacker haven I've seen out of Europe - yeah I did a Eurotrip when I was in college. A lot of the travelers were continuing on to Tibet, or were traveling around throughout Yunnan. While I visited a little off season, there was still a very wide range of youth hostels, bars, cafes, and the stereotypes of what a young Western youth might like:

Unfortunately I didn't take a picture which conveys that the Western food in Dali was awesome - cheaper, and generally much better that what is to be found in Shanghai. Many of the foreign-oriented places served as some sort of mash-up of hotel-bar-restaurant-cafe. The local food was also surprisingly good. Here's a local specialty, cross-the-bridge noodles. There's a hot broth, and then the noodles and various ingredients, each served in individual plates, are dumped into the broth and allowed to cook there for several minutes. The fruit on the top plate was for eating after the meal:

While I enjoyed Dali on its own, it's overshadowed by the surrounding area. I'll have a few related updates in the next month or two. It's also worth saying that staying here is cheap - there were a number of decent hotels and youth hostels in the $5-$10 range.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Quick Note on the Earthquake

Just a quick note, as a number of people have called or mailed - I was in Shanghai when the earthquake happened, and am totally safe from any effects of the Szechwan earthquake. My Szechwanese friends had a few scares with not initially being able to get through on the phone to family, but apparently everyone I know is fine.

Those interested in donating to the cause may click through to the British Red Cross, or look at Shanghaiist's list of ways for those in China to donate.

Also: blogspot has a handy if over-due new feature to publish updates in advance, and it should lead to a more normal update schedule. I'll try to have an update every Wednesday (Shanghai time), with occasional updates on other days of the week.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Gongying Hundun - My Favorite Won-tons

Posting a couple of updates about my much-loved xiaolongbao has really got me started. While I'm generally negative about food in Shanghai, I think the snacks and street-side vendors are quite frequently great - and it's a lot more fun to talk about the food I like than the food I don't. This update will be about one of my favorite Shanghai snacks - what I call Gongying Hundun's won-tons. It actually doesn't have a name, "Gongying Hundun" is just taken from their sign, basically meaning "we serve won-tons."

Gongying Hundun is inconvenient unless you work near the American Center or have a weekday free - it's on 68 Yuyuan Lu, the far Eastern end of the street, across the street from a Kedi convenience store, and basically around the corner from Malone's. That's pretty central, but it's only open on weekdays from 11-1:30! Instead of a proper restaurant or even a proper stand, it operates out of the side of an old-fashioned apartment building. It would be easy to miss except that there's often a small line leading outside:

Much like xiaolongbao, while the basic concept of won-tons is extremely simple, there's a lot of small things to go wrong. But I don't think Gongying Hundun leaves any room to nit-pick - its hand-made Won-tons are consistently flawless, and the basic toppings are strongly flavored and match well. Perhaps part of the reason Gongying gets it right is the extremely basic menu - there's nothing available except for pork won-tons and Red Braised Pork - a Shanghai specialty. The pork looks great but I've never tried it. Here's a quick look at the menu, unfortunely there's no English anywhere:

The only variation is that you can add a boiled egg, and have it served in soup or have it served dry. You can also choose to add minced garlic, chili peppers, and hot oil - I load it up on all three! A bowl of won-tons is five kuai, and then you just tell the server what to add. I won't go into Chinese vocabulary. There's no English, but you order the won-tons right at the stand and a little pointing should be enough to convey intentions.

These won-tons aren't going to win any beauty contests, but they are oh-so-delicious:

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Jia Jia Tang Bao - More Great Xiaolongbao

A quick follow-up on my last update, about Fuchun Xiaolongbao. While I like the xiaolongbao there very much, it's ranked a mere #9 on's list of xiaolongbao restaurants! So obviously I decided to opt for the Cadillac. Or in this case, the second-best on the menu, the Oldsmobile as it were. The #1 rated Xiaolongbao is a little out-of-the-way for me.

It's the well-known Jia Jia Tang Bao. I've actually been a few times, but it had been a while. It's a pretty convenient place to get to - on 90 Huanghe Lu, just a couple minute's walk North of the very central People's Park (#8 Subway exit). It's practically next door to the excellent Fusion-ish handmade noodles at Lao Kele restaurant.

Which is part of what kept me away - if I happen to be in the area, it's easy to just opt for Lao Kele. And if I just want a snack, Jia Jia Tang Bao either is very busy or has a line - there's no shortage of snack foods in the area, and it's easy just to opt for somewhere else. That's especially true now that there's a branch of Xiao Yang's Shengjian opened up directly across the street - it's basically a fried version of xiaolongbao, and very nearly as good.

So, you have to be prepared to wait in a line if it's a weekend. The line doesn't move very fast, which is understandable as there isn't a separate line for take-out, and the restaurant itself is quite small, it seats maybe thirty people total, and it's quite likely people will be splitting tables:

There's also a bit of a wait for the xiaolongbao to arrive, there's several varieties and they're made to order. The xiaolongbao are made by a group of young women, it all happens behind a big glass window, you can look in and see them fill the dough with the stuffing.

So I'll toss the gauntlet down: Jia Jia Tang Bao's xiaolongbao are not as good as Fu Chun's xiaolongbao. The wrapper doesn't taste as good, the soup isn't interesting, and the meat filling isn't ground enough to give it a proper consistency. It's not terrible but it's not particularly memorable. However, I also tried several other varieties: the shrimp-meat version was truly excellent, despite my general aversion to shrimp. And the chicken xiaolongbao was every bit as good, although it did have a very pronounced chicken flavor. I also enjoy their soups.

So while it's too bad the restaurant can't quite get the signature dish correct, I definitely recommend the restaurant on the strength of these versions, and it's probably worth trying different orders - when business is slower, they can split the orders into halves.

There's no English signs and probably no English spoken - a basic order for xiaolongbao will work though. It's 7.5 kuai (about $1) for a steamer of 10, and a single person would probably make a meal out of one steamer, or perhaps two. Shrimp is "renxia" and chicken is "jiding" - for those living the high life, there was one variation selling at 81 kuai for a single steamer.

Update 12/29/08 - Aside from the line to order, there can also be a fifteen or twenty minute wait once you're already seated. I'm a little more negative on this place than when I first wrote the update, if only because it can take such a long time to eat what boils down to a snack food, and these really aren't the best xialongbao in town.

After 2 or 3pm, the lines disappear, but only the more expensive crab varieties are available - 19.5 or 81 kuai for one steamer's worth. I've had the 19.5 kuai version a few times, it's actually very good.