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.


T. said...

Perhaps if you ordered the burrito mamita (which has rice and beans) instead of the papito, you wouldn't get just meat. just a tip.

Jeff Rutsch said...

I never ordered a "Papito," actually, maybe that's the default? I just asked for a burrito and expected something vaguely burrito-ish. I've been to a whole bunch of Cal-Mexican restaurants and have never before heard the term "papito" or "mamita" to describe a burrito.

I've been to El Mexicano a few more times since this update, and I've decided that vast majority of what's on the menu there is also really awful.