Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Decent Western Food in Jing'an

I love talking bad about the foreigner food in Shanghai. That’s just what I do. OK, the food has it coming; it’s none of it very good, and really I don’t think there’s any foreign restaurants that would make it if they were based back in San Francisco. But partially I just like complaining about restaurants, and really I could whine on and one about even my favorites.

But I’m going to take a break from the trend with this update, and talk about a couple Western Restaurants that, while not perfect, I’ll give a qualified recommendation. They’re both reasonably tasty, reasonably inexpensive restaurants that are worth casual visits.

The first is Munchies, a American Restaurant in the modus of Shanghai’s other American Restaurants, where in addition to a psychedelic Pac-Man logo, there’s a menu full of hamburgers and hot dogs. I mean I guess back in America I’d eat hamburgers and hot dogs every once in a while, like at ballgames or on the 4th of July, but it’s a little strange how it’s the staple of nearly every single American Restaurant in Shanghai. But I have given both of them a try at Munchies, and they’re both good renditions.

It wins points for having a side of a decent cole slaw (or French Fries or various salads), but really hamburgers are boring, who cares. Most interesting is that they have Cincinnati Chili. I’ve actually never heard of that before, and was only vaguely aware of the idea. It’s a Midwestern variation of Chili, with cinnamon and all-spice, and not any heat at all. Instead of dumping it on rice like anyone sensible human being, they dump it on spaghetti! It also comes in different 'specials', where maybe they’ll also dump cheese or onions or beans on the spaghetti. This is a five-way special:

Except for the hamburgers the portions are more of a snack than a meal, and the desserts are just cake and ice cream. Regardless, go for the chili, and if any gentle readers can say a word about whether it’s authentic, that would be appreciated. Actually I’d recommend searching some Cincinnati Chili down, even for those in the US - Amazon has mix packets of Skyline Chili, maybe they’re worth it?

Munchies is on 974 Wuding Lu, near Changde Lu, about a ten minute walk north of Jing'an Si Station. Meals cost somewhere around 50 kuai per person, about $7.50, and it's open from 10 until late every day.

The other place I'll mention here is Wagas, a chain with numerous locations wherever white people congregate. I tend towards the branch on Jiaozhou Lu and Xinzha Lu, about a five minute walk north of Jing'an. I’ve known about Wagas for years, but just as an annoying Café. OK I’m not a café person and so I can’t claim expertise, and their black coffee does seem pretty decent. However the several times I had gone before, it was over-run with office-away-from-office people, all on their computers and loudly talking business on their cellphones. Since I go to cafes to chat or study, it’s kind of not the atmosphere I go for.

However I found out that after six at night they have a deal where their pseudo-Italian dishes get priced down to 33 or 40 kuai, that’s about five or six dollars. It’s a pretty good deal: some of the pastas are really excellent, I haven't had them all, but my favorite has been a pasta with pumpkin, spinach, and feta cheese. Additionally the meals come with a small salad and a few pieces of very plain bread.

It’s not all perfect: Wagas’ atmposphere just isn’t as relaxed as a café should be, and I guess the computer nearby my food shows I’m guilty of treating Wagas as an office, as well. It’s also strictly a restaurant to visit by yourself, and between the bad atmosphere and the dog-bowl-like serving plate, I’d strongly recommend taking someone out to even Saizeriya, before Wagas.

Also, a simple can of soda costs 20 kuai, the equivalent of three dollars, which makes sense for a café but is kind of absurd if you’re there for inexpensive pasta. A few of the dishes are horrible, one pasta dish is literally noodles, thin chicken strips, and a quarter of a lemon for you to squeeze on top. So, order with a degree of caution, and things generally aren’t perfect, but on the other hand, excellent 33 kuai pastas make it all worthwhile.

I’ll end this post with a semi-apology. I have very strong feelings about what’s happening in Xinjiang, and I feel a little silly writing a China blog and talking about a couple semi-competent Western Restaurants. Adding on to the absurdity is that this blog is censored in China, and my counter-censorship service is also being censored, and I'm doing weird run-arounds to get this blog posted.

However from the beginning I’ve given myself rules for this blog, it’s not a personal account of the awesome party I went to over the weekend, it’s non-political, and so forth. I'd surely break the rule if I had a wonderfully informed opinion or any special information, or perhaps if I went to a particularly bouncing party over the weekend, but that's not the case. I do encourage everyone to inform themselves about what’s happening, even if it’s just a quick look over Wikipedia entry on Xinjiang.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Other Side of the Great Firewall

Blogger and Blogspot are still blocked within China, which really should motivate me to transfer this entire blog over to a private server, but really has just motivated me to sign up for Freedur's free one-month trial. It's a service that essentially re-routes my browser through Texas, so I can use websites that aren't normally viewable from within China. It's actually very simple and easy to use, and I'd recommend it, although a friend of mine gave good marks to the similar Hotspot Shield, which is free. Update 9/1/2009 - The company was stolen by an employee, and the original company now offers the Freedur service for free.

Just as how from within China computers can't normally view Youtube or Blogspot, computers from within the US are blocked from many of China's vast resources of online pirated music & video. Granted, just walking down the street there's plenty of bootleg DVDs available, but most of the people I know have moved over to online bootlegs in the last few years. And even at Internet Cafes, a whole lot of people are just there to watch movies on the 17" screens...maybe they go for all the cigarette smoke...

As shown up top though, it's very easy to turn the Freedur proxy service on or off, if it's off then one can see the same web connection as any other user in China. For example, I can go to Baidu, China's most popular Internet browser (maybe 50% more popular than Google), and with a couple of clicks come to this:

Which is a list of Michael Jackson's most popular songs. From within China, clicking on "Billie Jean" brings up a list of songs that can be listened to or downloaded:

Where yeah, clicking on "listen" brings up the song at full quality, it even has karaoke lyrics alongside!

Meanwhile, going over to the American side of the Great Firewall of China, suddenly Baidu says (in Chinese) that it can't find any search results...

It's not just topical results, like Michael Jackson or Billie Jean. Looking up "Beatles" from China's most popular search engine will yield 20,000 MP3s, while looking up "Beatles" from America will yield none.

It's not just music, movies and TV shows are often bootlegged on Chinese video-sharing sites, such as youku. Looking up the popular ongoing HBO show "True Blood" on youku shows a number of results, the first of which is the entire show, up to last week:

Just like Youtube, it's a simple click to watch the episode, with an hour-long episode fit into a single clip. Quality is somewhere between Youtube's normal quality, and Youtube's HD quality.

Whereas clicking on the video from the American side of the Great Firewall of China brings up this:

This blocking is being done by the companies in question, not any American government task force. I imagine it's to keep off the radar of the large companies and their lawyers, in nations where IP rights are actually enforced.

I can't claim innocent; I and probably every other person in China watches bootleg TV and movies. In fact it's essentially impossible to buy legitimate versions of most DVDs or CDs, and even seemingly legitimate stores sell pirated videos.

On the other hand, I really think that massive bootlegging largely explains why Mainland China's movies and music are universally so very very awful.