Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Old Houses of Shanyin Lu

Shanyin Lu is a street near the Beijing North Road shopping area and the Duolun Lu Old Street. The obvious reason to go is because of Wanshou Zhai, a small hole in the wall that makes not only very good (if somewhat inconsistent) xiaolongbao, but also excellent noodles and won-tons. Wanshou Zhai is right at the base of Shanyin Lu, it's a short street and I think it's worth continuing on to have a look at the old, colonial-style buildings of the area. They're of a higher quality than the shikumen that are being pulled down all across Shanghai, from what I gather Sichuan Bei Lu was a top spot to be back around 1930. A lot of China's most famous Kunmingtang figures lived there, as well as many of the literati, and Lu Xun, a proto-revolutionary author proclaimed “China's best author,” had a well-preserved home here:

It's brick buildings, three stories tall, with air conditioners installed. But there's other styles represented, the front gate to this apartment, with stucco and arches, looks like a half-attempt at a Spanish facade:

A number of the buildings have plaques on the outside, giving a few historical facts about the building, and in an ideal world, that means the building won't get torn down to make a ghost mall or another 5-star hotel.

Most interesting, to me, was larger Edwardian-looking mansions, in the classic Shanghai style of blue and orange bricks.

I don't know much about these buildings, but I'm very curious. I imagine they were originally built as a small apartment building, in the model of the author's apartment from Scenes of City Life, and are currently stuffed solid with people? Anyway, the laundry, and the accruements of daily life, seem to be overflowing out of the house:

And generally it's just an interesting area to look around, you don't see curved brick buildings every day of the week:

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I haven't had much to say in this blog about the nightlife of Shanghai, and that's because the sort of things I said in a recent post about Shanghai's foreign restaurants apply double to nightlife in Shanghai – it's absurdly expensive and too low quality, in comparison to what I was familiar with in the United States. The sort of places that are popular with foreigners generally don't attract a local Chinese following, and even the top spots probably wouldn't last a week in any large Western City. It's more something foreigners do out of force of habit.

That said, it's a habit of mine, there's a few spots I enjoy, and I'll have a short group of updates about them. The first will be Logo, which is something of a dive bar, on 13 Xingfu Lu – it's a little out of the way, I usually get there by taking the taxi from the Hengshan Lu Subway Station. I like to go on Sunday nights, when there's an open mic night. The music can be inane, in the way jamming can often be, but some of the individual performers are very good, and can really stand out when they need to. Even at its worst, it's fun background music.

Drinking in Shanghai is on the expensive side, but LoGo is fairly cheap, and tipping isn't expected. Most people are drinking big half-liter mugs of Carlsberg, a tasteless beer, it goes for 30 kuai (about $4.50). They also have some mixed drinks on the menu, there's froo-froo tropical drinks like Pina Coladas and Mai Tais for 35 kuai, they're better than I expected and mixed strong. There's also a bunch of mixed drinks I've never heard of, maybe that's how they mix drinks in England.

Logo often has dancing, and some performances by local bands – I'm not a huge fan of these, because aside from where the main stage gets set up, there's really not much space in the main room. Even when it's not busy there'll be a lot of squeezing, to get past people. Anyway, the club has an English-language website with a list of events. There's also larger room up front, I'm guessing it doesn't have as much sound-proofing or it would be the main room. It's chill, there's more places to sit, it's quieter, it's lit a lot brighter:

There's a foosball table there - the people who play are in a league above any foosball I've seen before.

A big problem I have with Logo, that's endemic to nightlife spots in Shanghai, is that everybody's chain smoking, and ventilation doesn't amount to much. Personally I find it gross, and by the end of the night clothes and hair will smell really seriously disgusting. Beijing (of all places) implemented a ban on indoor smoking, and I'm hoping Shanghai does the same.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lan Xin Restaurant

Lan Xin Restaurant is a Shanghainese Restaurant that I enjoy, but a restaurant I think of as existing in the shadow of Chun, which is practically next door on Jinxian Lu. Like Chun, it's a small, home-style restaurant, turning out authentic tasty versions of the local cuisine in a casual setting. Chun is a little famous for not having a menu – or at the least, every time I've seen Chun mentioned, the no-menu thing gets mentioned as well. Lan Xin has a menu, but it's hand-written, here's a gander at a page:

Lan Xin is a step or two behind Chun in a few regards. The place is small, but doesn't feel charming, just packed. In addition to the main dining area with five tables, there's also a seriously steep flight of stairs that leads to a small room with a couple tables and a couch, it feels like sneaking into someone's private room for a meal.

I think the food, while still very good, is not as good as Chun's. While Chun is consistently excellent in everything it creates, Lan Xin varies. Still, there's a number of dishes that the restaurant is famous for getting right, and these dishes are seen on just about every table. One of these is Hong Shao Rou, a Shanghai specialty of fatty pork with a sweet sauce. Their rendition is on the fatty side, but still probably the best I've ever had. The "red" sauce it's served in is dark to the point of being black.

Another popular dish is Cong Bao Xia Ren. OK, I'm a lazy eater. I don't like spitting out bones, I don't like picking at shrimp shells to get out the meat. These shrimps were very tasty, but small and inconvenient to eat: first bite off the heads, then pop the rest in the mouth, try to chew out the meat, and then spit out the shell.

My favorite vegetable dish there is nothing fancy, but quite nice: Tang Cu Ying Si. It's a lightly pickled mix of a local vegetable, sliced mushroom, and black fungus:

But there's a lot on the menu that I find surprisingly average. Certainly not bad, but not the sort of thing you'd expect to find at a restaurant with a perpetual line. The Tofu and Shepard's Purse Soup, usually a favorite of mine, is oily and not particularly good. And this eggplant, not as spicy as it looks, just wasn't anything to get excited about:

And a quick digression: I've lived in Shanghai for quite some time, and before that I lived in heavily Chinese Downtown Oakland. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about Chinese food, and consequently I snobbishly turn my nose up at certain un-authentic American Chinese restaurants, although I think there are plenty very authentic Chinese restaurants in the US. So what to make of Lan Xin's Gu Lao Pork? It's quite good, but it's coming from almost the exact same playbook as Sweet and Sour Pork, the sort of thing you'd find at Panda Express. It's not quite as tangy, and the meat is of a higher quality than what you'd find there, but it wouldn't raise an eyelid if it was served back at some mall in California, alongside a fortune cookie:

Update 2/25/2009 - Wow, according to Wikipedia, Sweet and Sour Pork is actually the same dish, after being transported to Canton and then California.

One advantage Lan Xin does have over Chun is that it's half the price, bills should come out to around fifty kuai ($7.50) per person, or less. While I think it's possible on some theoretical level to just show up and get in line, I definitely recommend making a reservation first, the phone number is (21)6253-3554.

Unfortunately, there isn't any English at all, and while the staff is friendly, this restaurant will probably be impossible to navigate without at least a little Chinese, or a willingness to point at other people's tables. It's worth trying your luck though. Finally, the address is 130 Jinxian Lu, it's very close to both Chun and the Lomography store. I get there by taking the #1 Subway to Shaanxi Nan Lu station, walking north along Maoming Lu for five or ten minutes, and then taking a left at Jinxian Lu. It's right near the corner.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Xinjiang Style Restaurant

Xinjiang Style Restaurant is a very good Xinjiang Restaurant in the Hongkou area. On the Chinese food site, it's currently rated the #2 Xinjiang Restaurant, based on taste. This isn't my first update about a Xinjiang Restaurant, I've also mentioned the unfortunately-named Xinjiang Rather Go On Expedition A Restaurant, near Jing'an Temple. And much of what I could write for that restaurant applies to this one as well: Xinjiang Food is from the Muslim, Eastern-Turkish minorities of Northwestern China. It's Central Asian in character, with a Chinese influence, and makes an excellent break from eating standard Chinese fair. Xinjiang Restaurants are most known for their lamb kebabs, which are popular both with a meal, or a snack for people just passing by. And to my mind, the kebabs aren't as good at Xinjiang Style Restaurant. They're being cooked out front in the small picture up top, here's a closer look at them:

I wouldn't call them bad, they're actually pretty good and I order a few whenever I go. Rather, it's that there's solid chunks of seasoned lamb fat on those kebabs! It's probably something of a treat for those stuck in the freezing Xinjiang winters, but to me it's kind of gross. Anyway, past that, I prefer Xinjiang Style Restaurant's food to Xinjiang Rather Go On Expedition A Restaurant's. The two restaurants are comparable in quality, both of them occupy the range of being better than good but worse than amazing.

The environment can't be called upscale, but service is friendly and there's a unique atmosphere. Particularly in the early afternoon, Xinjiang Style Restaurant is almost entirely occupied by Uighur/Eastern Turkish people, many of whom seem to know each other well. Maybe they're of the same extended family, or maybe it's just a close-knit community, I haven't asked. Even if they have nothing else on their table, they'll generally have a large stack of Xinjiang-style bread, it's very dense but vaguely reminds me of naan. I can't say I'm a huge fan, but it's not expensive, neither.

I am a big mushroom fan, and these needle mushrooms are marinated in a really delicious vinegar-dominated sauce that reminds me of the mushrooms you'd find in an Italian deli:

The soups are fun, and while I couldn’t give a culinary history, they seem to be thoroughly Xinjiang-ized takes on Chinese soups. For instance, this Hot and Sour soup was swimming with peppers, lamb, and onions:

Looking underneath, it's all heated with a dry flame, that keeps the soup at a low boil while it's at the table. It's not at all uncommon to see in Shanghai, but I still like it very much.

I've never seen any foreigners at this restaurant, and there's no English spoken, but the menu has pictures included for the most part, and there should be no real difficulties. It also has English translations that make almost no sense. My favorite thing to get, if I'm going by myself, is a plate of Ding Ding Mian – chopped-up noodles with diced lamb and peppers. It may look like Chef Boyardee, but it's so delicious!

This restaurant is located on 98 Dongjiangwan Lu, it's about a 5 minute walk south from Subway Line #8's Hongkou Stadium Station, Exit #1, and in the shadow of the elevated subway line. A meal should cost somewhere between twenty and fifty kuai per person.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Yuyuan Night Festival

Chinese New Year happened recently, it's the first day of Spring according to China's incredibly confusing, traditional Lunar-based calendar. Like the Western New Year, it's marked from the first day of the first month, however the actual holiday lasts for a week (officially), and often two weeks (with private vacation time) – more or less corresponding from the New Moon to the Full Moon, two weeks later.

To celebrate all of this, the shopping center surrounding Yuyuan Gardens, which is kind of Shanghai's equivalent to Pier 39, puts on a big display of lights. I don't have much more to say about this, so mostly this update will just be some pictures I've taken – some of the pictures were taken at last year's Year of the Rat celebration, some were taken at this year's Year of the Cow celebration, but really the two celebrations were pretty much the same.

The alleyways of the corny tourist shopping center were covered with lights, in a red paper covering that all looks stereotypically Chinese, there were rows after rows of them:

And there were sporadic parades through the grounds, with people dressed as traditional Chinese gods, or more commonly as silly Cow mascots. It was hard to get a picture of this, here's as good as I could get:

Even though the grounds are fenced up with an admission fee of thirty kuai (about $4.50), the place is still open for business, although business at most places, surprisingly enough, doesn't seem especially fast. I'll try to talk about one of these food stalls, Nanxiang Xiaolongbao, in an upcoming blog. Here's a small snack stall:

As stated before, the whole place was covered with lights. The nexus was the famous nine-turn bridge, right outside the actual entrance to Yuyuan Gardens. It was too crowded to seriously contemplate entering, but here's a quick picture:

Police were out in force, probably to keep an eye out for pick-pockets. They also did a lackadaisical job of driving away vendors selling things on the street - mostly the vendors sold silly light-up cow horns. When they saw the police, they would run the other direction. The police occasionally yelled at them, but didn't give chase. They could also be seen admiring the lights themselves:

I'm writing this all in the past tense, but the real last day of Chinese New Year's is tonight, so let me take the opportunity to wish all my gentle readers a happy Year of the Cow!