Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Foreigner Food in Shanghai; A Few Mexican Restaurants in Particular

I try to avoid talking too much about foreign food in Shanghai, and that's not because I never eat it myself, but because foreign food in Shanghai just doesn't feel like an integrated part of the city. Whereas in the US, everybody eats foreign foods without thinking twice about it, in Shanghai the only people who eat at most foreign restaurants are expats and their romantic interests.

There's many reasons for this, and yes I think it's partly because Chinese citizens can be very provincial. But I think the larger part is that this food is almost universally of a low quality, I don't think there is a single Western Restaurant in Shanghai that could survive on quality in, say, San Francisco. And the prices for this mediocre food is generally much higher than it'd be in California - it's hard to compare, but I'd call the prices about 50% - 100% higher than what would be typical in San Francisco. Finally, this is all happening in price-driven Shanghai, where beer costs a quarter, manapua costs a dime, and you're never going to be more than a five minute's walk from a place that serves a quality local-style meal for $2.

I'll start with a few case studies, a couple of recently opened California-Mexican Restaurants. The first is the recently opened Agave Cantina, near-ish to Jing'an Si, at the corner of Changle Lu and Jinmin Lu. It's a California-Mexican Restaurant that's quickly picked up a huge following. How, or why, baffles the mind. At 65 kuai for a burrito, there's nothing inside this stale tortilla but meat, have a gander:

It's an obvious mis-understanding of what a burrito is, and in the US nobody would seriously consider going to this restaurant. And yet in Shanghai, foreigners are lining around the block! While I could understand paying more for quality, the quality isn't there, and by local standards the price is absurd. People go purely out of a sentimental attachment to burritos. To emphasize, a small group of friends could either get one of these apiece, or they could spend the same amount of money to get an exorbitantly large, multi-course meal at, say, the excellent Xiao Bai Hua. Or for those who measure prices in terms of alcohol, they could go to a local Convenience Store and get twenty-four cans of beer, plus a Fried-Chicken Microwave Burrito:

I'm more positive about El Mexicano, a small new local chain. And I think pricing is a part of it: Shanghai restaurants are operating in a city where 50 kuai ($7) gets one an excellent meal, and 100 kuai gets a restaurant worthy of raves. It would be difficult to spend more than 50 kaui at El Mexicano, and if the burritos aren't much more authentic than Agave Cantina's, they're tastier. And I think the horchata is good, and the tacos, at 7 kuai apiece, are nearly authentic enough to have fallen out the back of a taco truck – a slice of lemon standing in for a slice of lime being the biggest difference. OK, I'd never claim this restaurant to be excellent, and if this place opened in California it wouldn't last a week. Still, El Mexicano is a model of what I'd like to see in foreigner restaurants in Shanghai – prices comparable to a Chinese meal, and food that's at the least moderately authentic and tasty.

I also think there are a very few exceptions to the rule of Shanghai's foreigner food all being bad or at least overpriced, most notably certain Japanese restaurants, and perhaps Thai House. And of course I realize there's people for whom the money involved is of no real concern. I'm not one of those people, and I wouldn't be even if I was a millionaire, and even if I was one of those people, I'd still think that the Foreigner Restaurants in Shanghai are sorry.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Figaro Café

I'll keep this update quick, because Figaro Café is largely (if not entirely) foreigner-oriented, and raving on about it just doesn’t at all go along with the increasingly-ignored “Slums of Shaolin” motif. However, I'd like to give the place some quick ups. The main branch of the chain is near Xintiandi and the Huangpi Nan Lu Subway Station, on 160 Xingye Lu & Madang Lu. First of all, they serve coffee:

OK the horrible truth is I don't like coffee, and while sometimes I'll go to cafes in Shanghai, it's almost purely because I have time to kill and want a place to chill for a little while, reading and using wi-fi. Figaro charges 18 kuai for a normal-sized cup of coffee, or 22 kuai for a bizarrely large mug. Quality seems about average, to my undiscerning tastes.

The reason to go is that the place is the best spot for a foreign book nerd in Shanghai to be. Downstairs, it's a convenient place to pick up Shanghai's various free English-language magazines. Upstairs, there's a large number of bookshelves, where customers freely drop off used books, and pick up new books to take home and read, as part of an international club called Book Crossings. I'll guess there's somewhere around two hundred books available, mostly in English but some in Japanese and other languages.

These books do change, it's worth dropping by from time to time to see what's newly available. In all honesty the collection does have a serious tendency towards fluffy airplane novels, while my preference is towards serious literature and studious non-fictions. But there's almost always a few top-notch books available. I've had good experiences diving outside my normal genres – for instance, I thought the military history "Panzer Commander" was fascinating. Theoretically, the available books can be gleaned off the Book Crossing website – while that does give an idea of what's available, realistically, most people obviously don't register their activities with the site, and I'll admit I'm one of them.

The friendly manager also runs a number of book related club, either on a weekly or monthly basis – there's reading clubs and workgroups for authors. I don't do them, but I've seen them operate and maybe I'll join in, sometime in the future.

The number two café for booklovers? I'll give that title to Garden Books, on 325 Changle Lu & Shaanxi Lu, near the Shaanxi Nan Lu Subway station. Honestly, I've never had the coffee there, but it's a very nice bookstore with an attached café, I had their ice-cream once and thought it top-notch.

Update 2/17/09 - Oh man! Figaro Café lost their lease just yesterday, a bank is taking over the space. I heard the manager say she was looking for a new location nearby, and expects to open in about two months - I'll update this blog when it happens. There's a smaller branch with a smaller selection of books and a less interesting atmosphere, at 456 Nanjing Xi Lu. It's about a five or ten minute walk west of People Square.

Update 3/25/09 - Actually, the second branch at 456 Nanjing Xi Lu has also closed. The main branch is still set-up to re-open, I'll post the information when that happens.