Wonton Soup, Xiaolongbao, and other Quick Eats around Shanghai
One of the things I like most about Chinese food, and China, is that elaborate banquets, fancy restaurants, family-style meals, casual eateries, and street food all coexist harmoniously and all have a role in the gastronomic culture. Something that I particularly miss in other countries is the ability to have a quick meal of real food, not fast food, at odd hours of the day. This is something I took advantage of during this trip to Shanghai.
My first full day in town, I was holed up in my hotel room with work, and by the time I could leave, it was already past 2. While that’s normal lunch time in Spain, it’s quite late for lunch in China. Without doing any prior research into restaurants, on my way from the hotel to the work site, I passed by a place that seemed like it still had steamers full of buns and a few diners eating inside. The name of the restaurant was “陋室汤包馆“ or “Loushi Dumpling (specifically, soup dumpling) Shop.” Underneath, there was also a sign that said “特色老鸭粉丝汤,” or “special old duck vermicelli soup,” which intrigued me. So I went in.
I had to get a steamer of the buns that I saw outside, and that was served immediately. Man, these were seriously soupy! Maybe even more so than the ones from Din Tai Fung in San Diego? I polished these off in no time.
I obviously had to order the “special old duck vermicelli soup,” even though I had no idea what it was. But if they say it’s “special,” and merits a sign on the building, and everyone else around me had a bowl, seems like it’s a must. So what was it?
Besides the expected vermicelli and soup, there was fried tofu puffs, cubes of duck blood, tan curly pieces of what I’ve since learned were duck intestine, and dark slices of duck gizzard. The tofu puffs were of course easy to eat, soaking up the broth well. I absolutely loved duck blood - it brought me back to my childhood eating in my family’s favorite restaurant in New York Chinatown. The duck blood here, like in that Chinatown restaurant, was as tender as silken tofu, and had none of the iron taste that one usually associates with congealed blood like in Spain, or morcilla, or black pudding. In fact, I used to think it was simply dark colored tofu, when I was young!
The curled, tan strips of intestine were quite springy, and the gizzard was chewy, so they gave an interesting textural contrast. But I must admit that while I finished the rest of the dish, I didn’t finish those components.
I was again super busy the following day, running around all over town, and again it wasn’t until past 2pm that I had a chance to get something to eat. I didn’t have much time, but I saw a window with a couple people waiting for their food - the window indicated that this was quick food, and the people waiting indicated that the quality was good! The banner above the window said “阿婆油燉子,” meaning “Grandma’s You Dun Zi.” I had no idea what You Dun Zi was, though I was curious!
Inside the window, there was indeed a grandmotherly-looking woman tending to a pot of oil. She would spoon out shredded daikon from a bowl, then place it in a ladle. Then, she would place a couple spoonfuls of batter inside of the same ladle, and then lower the ladle into the vat of oil.
There were other items on the menu, but when it came time for me to order, she simply asked, “How many?” So I just said three, figuring that I wouldn’t bother with the menu, if she also wasn’t bothering to ask me “what” I wanted, only “how many!” Each one cost 3 RMB (about US$0.45)
Steamy and fresh, it was greasy but very delicious! Such a simple concoction - batter, daikon, and some scallion - was truly a satisfying and filling quick lunch. Afterwards, I checked up what You Dun Zi (油燉子) was, and apparently it’s a favorite local Shanghai snack. And the version I had looked even more tasty than the pictures I saw on the web!
My last full day in Shanghai, I took it as a challenge to escape from work, for at least an hour or so. A colleague had given me a handwritten list of simple (“maybe dirty”) places for local food, and I decided to try to find the one closest to the hotel. He only wrote down the addresses; when I asked him if he knew the names of the restaurants, he said no.
So I went looking for Wu Kang Road 37 Alley (武康路37弄). Wu Kang Road is a pretty, historic road formerly known as Ferguson Road. But I couldn’t find a number 37. So I kind of took a guess and thought that perhaps either through messy handwriting, or transcription error, the address should have been number 57. So at Wu Kang Road number 57 (武康路57号), I found the eatery “阿啦” (A La). It’s the tiny building right behind the blue and white road sign in the picture below.
I’ve learned that “阿啦” (A La) in the Shanghai dialect means “我们” or “we.” So “阿啦混沌“ restaurant is “We Wonton” restaurant. Whether or not this was the place my colleague wanted to send me to, it looked promising, so I went in!
I ordered the first item on the menu, the 阿啦菜肉混沌, or “A La Vegetable and Meat Wonton.” There were two other wonton options, one with mushrooms, and another with shrimp, all preceded by the “A La” name. So this place really must specialize in wontons, even though their menu is quite extensive.
These wonton were huge! They were so enormous, they couldn’t fit in the spoon. The filling of meat and leeks was super generous. The broth was simply garnished with a bit of laver seaweed and scallions. In contrast to the Cantonese-style wontons I’m used to in US Chinatowns, the skin was a bit thicker, and didn’t cling to the filling as much.
When I went to pay after finishing, a funny thing happened. My bowl of wontons cost 18 RMB (US$2.70), and I handed over a 20 RMB bill. But the lady couldn't find her money bag (錢包), so couldn't give me change. She asked if I had WeChat Pay, which everyone in China seems to use except us tourists, because you need a domestic bank account to activate it. When I said I didn't, she suggested that I also eat a lu dan (滷蛋), or tea egg, which cost 2 RMB. I said that was fine! I thought it was really amusing how I must have come across so backwards and behind the times, not being able to use digital payment in the little wonton shop!
That same evening, I didn’t finish work until past 10pm, and I hadn’t eaten dinner yet. So, back in the Jing’an district, walking back to the hotel I kind of just randomly chose one of many restaurants along the way. None of them really had any customers inside, so it really was a crapshoot. But a bowl of noodle soup seemed a good idea on this cold and wet day, so I chose “伊馨牛肉面“ or “Yi Xin Beef Noodle Soup.” The words on the side indicated that this was a 清真, or Halal, restaurant.
The restaurant was super bright, and manned by what seemed to be a brother and sister. The sister wore a headscarf, and the brother hand-pulled the noodles for my soup to order. I had been doubtful about the freshness of the food, eating at such late an hour with no other customers around, but hearing the thud of the dough and seeing his hands pull apart the noodles into hundreds of tiny strands reassured me! (Notice, too, how the sanitation grade apparently is middling!)
My bowl of beef noodle soup was piping hot, and deliciously rich with a deep flavor. It might have almost been too rich and savory, but nonetheless it was the perfect end to a long day.
Out of the four restaurants I profiled here, I only sought out one of them. The other three were just random places I came across and decided to try on a whim. Yet all of them served up delicious, fresh, real food - food that would have people lining up to eat in any other city on the planet!