{travelogue} Street Eats and Spicy Stuff; Crickets and Craft Beer: A Second Time Around in Shanghai

I recently went back to what I think might be my #1 favorite Chinese city: Shanghai. I have met so many Westerners who tell me they don’t like Shanghai, but I think the problem is that it’s like New York or London or any other huge metropolis: it is so big and there are so many things to do that it can be hard to crack past the touristy spots and get into the real Shanghai. But once you figure out what to do and where to go, it is a fantastic cosmopolitan destination that should be on everyone’s short list.

This trip, we made a point of discovering great street food, trying restaurants that represent cuisine from different parts of China, and exploring some hidden treasures. Here are my recommendations to help you figure out all of the very best things to do in Shanghai. And be sure to read my previous post for a complementary set of recommendations so you’ll be totally well-versed on all that’s great about this busy city!

Great Shanghai Street Eats

We sought out street food this time around, and were richly rewarded with some excellent and fun food experiences. And if you stick to the popular spots, you shouldn’t have tummy troubles. There are two great corners I will recommend, plus a couple other places that merit a mention.

The first is the corner of Xiangyang Lu and Changle Lu in the former French Concession. Come around breakfast or lunch time and your options will include super thin egg crepes made to order – be sure to ask for the fried wonton skin inside for a great crunch.

You can also get something that’s like a Chinese version of an omelet or Spanish tortilla, that’s a puffed wedge of fluffy eggs with scallions and other seasonings.

The absolute best fried pork dumplings are found on this corner too, so be sure to save room for an order (or two) of those. Take a small bite and suck out the hot broth inside or you risk an explosion! Dip liberally in vinegar and hot chili oil. Absolutely incredible.

I don’t know the name of the dumpling place, but the sign looks like this:

The second corner that’s fun to visit is the corner of Guangdong Lu and Zhejiang Lu, not too far from People’s Park. This area is home to many people from the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang, the population of which is mostly Muslim and includes Uighurs, Tajiks, and Kazakhs. This corner has a bread oven that turns out loaf after loaf of hot flatbread cooked in a tandoor on the sidewalk. Delicious when fresh out of the oven!

As you can see by the preponderance of skewers in this trash can, the charred lamb skewers sold alongside the bread stall are also extremely popular.

There’s a little stand next to the skewer spot that sells a unique kind of large, bready buns that are steamed and oil-fried with delicious juicy shredded pork filling. Just look for this guy.

Da Hu Chun was talked up as the best fried soup dumpling (shengjianbao) in town, but it was truly not my favorite. While the pork filling was excellent in taste, it was not juicy enough and the dumpling was too bready and thick. The location at 11 Sichuan South Road, near the Bund, is the original one, and has been serving up these famous buns since the 1930s, so they obviously have lots of fans. A quick warning: the branch that’s listed at 71 Yunnan Road near People’s Park is no longer there.

If you are stalwart in your affections for scallion pancakes, you can join the long line (possibly for an hour or more) at the back gate of 2 Maoming Nan Lu, Lane 159, near Nanchang Lu, for the famous A Da Scallion Oil Pancakes stall. I wish I could tell you I had done it, but I had to save something for next time, right?

If you want the very best of street food, try one of UnTour’s excellent culinary walking tours – it is definitely worth it and I would recommend it to every visitor! Plus they’ll take you to a secret spot to see real Henan noodles being made. Yum.

Favorite Shanghai Restaurants

Shanghainese food is sweet, soft, and bland–totally not to my personal taste. Luckily, in a city this size, you can find great food from every part of China.

If you make it out to the excellent art space M50 (and you should! – it’s mentioned below) stop in and have lunch at Bandu Cafe, a funky little spot owned by a couple of musicians. Based on the space, you might be surprised at the quality of the excellent Sichuan dumplings and fresh noodles.

For Xinjiang food from the Muslim minority area of western China, Spice Bazaar is a great bet. It’s in the heart of the former French Concession at 29 Dongping Road. The setting is cool but casual. The best dish was the braised lamb on Uighur bread. The round bread is cut in wedges and submerged in a slightly spicy lamb broth, with slow-cooked shredded lamb and vegetables on top. The chewy, thick handmade noodles were absolutely wonderful, and hard to stop eating – despite the fact that they are incredibly long and it is impossible to look graceful when you are eating them! The vegetables were all super fresh and simply but expertly prepared.

We loved our dinner at South Beauty, a top spot for spicy Sichuan food in a gorgeous setting. There are five branches in Shanghai, but you should really only consider two: either the one on the top floor of Super Brand Mall, for a great view of the Bund, or the one at 881 Yan’an Middle Road, which is in an old financier’s mansion that’s been modernized and beautified even further. A warning: much of the food is very spicy. Everything we had was excellent, with the lamb chops and dan dan noodles being standouts. The simple vegetable sides were not spicy but they were terrific. The only negative part of the meal was chasing an insane jet-lagged toddler (albeit one that I had given birth to, reared, and unfortunately brought with me to this very special restaurant) around the multi-level space.

I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but we had an incredible meal at Wujie, overlooking Xujiahui Park, which is a creative, upscale vegetarian restaurant. This meat-lover happily gobbled down fried tofu, lotus root, chicken nuts, and a whole host of other odd-sounding but delicious dishes.

Shanghai has turned a new leaf of late by opening a couple of craft breweries with restaurants attached, the best of which has got to be Boxing Cat Brewery in the former French Concession at 519 Fuxing Middle Road. The rotating list features a selection of craft beers that are all brewed right in Shanghai, and the restaurant offers solidly good and interesting western food like fried mac and cheese balls. The downstairs bar and lounge area is nice place to hang out with your laptop or for a chat with friends.

Another cool place with a beer focus is the Grumpy Pig, which starts out as a hip mens clothing store, and as you walk further inside, becomes a n airy, industrial pub with many types of beer offered and locally famous ribs. It’s at 65 Maoming Road North in Jing’an and just what the doctor ordered when you just can’t drink another watery Tsingtao.

Some things I desperately wanted to try, but didn’t make it to this time include: the pork ribs at Guyi Hunan restaurant, fried goat cheese at Mia’s Yunnan Kitchen, the peanut noodles at Wei Xiang Zhai, and the wood-fired pizza at Issimo.

Sweet Stuff in Shanghai

The most wonderful of all Chinese desserts, the egg tart, ended up on the mainland by way of Hong Kong by way of Macau by way of Portugal–and the best version is found at Lillian’s. When they are slightly warm they are just perfect, with a flaky pastry shell and a wobbly, rich custard. There are multiple locations, including one in the basement of Paris Spring Mall at Huaihai Zhong Lu near Shaanxi Nan Lu. Warm tarts are available after 10 AM.

The finest ice cream in all of China might just be La Perla, inside Garden Books, which is on Changle Lu just off of South Shaanxi Rd. We went back multiple times. Garden Books is an English language bookstore with a nice bathroom and cafe if you need a break from walking around.

For a decadent dessert bar, check out the weirdly named Ninethirty by Awfully Chocolate in the K11 Art Mall (mentioned below.) Whether you get a salted caramel-coated brownie, a jar of tiramisu, or any other of their sweet specialties, you’ll be giving yourself a well-earned sugar boost of the best possible type, plus a respite from the bustling streets of Shanghai.

Cultural Stops in Shanghai

First things first: although I’m not usually the type to take tours, you should make it a priority to contact Shanghai Pathways and spend at least a half day with them (and do tell them I sent you!) Last time around, we toured a super cool Wet Market and an old-timey soy sauce factory. This time we went to a bird and cricket market to see all manner of songbirds for sale, and watch old men poking crickets to see if they would be good fighters.

We also did a tour of Old Shanghai with Shanghai Pathways, and got to explore the homes and gardens of the lilongs (which are the Shanghainese version of hutongs or old, low, courtyard homes) and wander back lanes that are not frequented by foreigners. Among the amazing sights: communal outdoor kitchens, a wagon for picking up chamber pot waste, and some lingering shadows of Mao-era propaganda.

One of the best museums in Shanghai is improbably in the basement of an apartment complex. The Propaganda Poster Art Center (PPAC) houses an incredible collection of posters from the “Shanghai Girls” posters of 1930 up through communist-era propaganda posters and through the 1990s. Check out the small exhibit on Daobaozi, the street art condemning other people. It is a very special small museum, plus there is a great gift shop with some original posters for $100 and up and some copies for under $10-15. It’s located at 868 Huashan Rd building B, B level. If you can’t figure it out the guard at the front gate will give you a little map.

Art lovers should definitely not miss M50 on Moganshan Road, a collective of artists’ studios, galleries, and design shops. My favorites are Island6 Gallery, with interactive video and light pieces, the Petit Musee Store, and the More Less Design Store. The M50 Design Store has the most fabulous collection of pottery, both modern and traditional. It’s reasonably priced and makes great gifts (as long as you can get them home without breaking them.)

For a very “Shanghai” take on art, it’s worth stopping into the K11 Art Mall. This is kind of a weird spot, but it has its charms. The basement level has rotating art exhibits and a fantastic museum gift shop. The upper levels house upscale designer shops with smaller art exhibits dotted throughout the space. And the top floor offers restaurants and an indoor urban garden, complete with mushroom-growing habitats and coming in October, some live pigs. It’s at 300 Huaihai Zhong Lu.

One of the most fun things to do is wander the French Concession and check out all of the shops. There are several possible itineraries, but here are some general ideas about what you’ll find. On Xinle Road between Donghu and Shaanxi, there are a bunch of teeny, tiny, skinny shops that mostly sell women’s clothes. On Changle Lu between Shaanxi and Maoming, it gets a little more diverse, as the cute clothing boutiques are mixed in with street food stalls, butcher shops, and fruit stands. Dongping Lu is mostly restaurants, but has a few small, high-quality shops mixed in and is a generally nice walking street. Wulumuqi between Anfu and Fuxing has fewer boutiques but really good ones – in fact, it’s the only place we bought something. Keep going down Wulumuqi below Fuxing and it’s a hive of activity with cheap and delicious fruit stands, butcher shops, snacks, and so forth. Just outside the French Concession in Jing’an, on Maoming Road between Nanjing and Yan’an, the boutiques are split more evenly between men’s and women’s clothes and tend to be a little cheaper.

Some (Short) Self-Guided Shanghai Itineraries

All spots are mentioned above with more details.

  • Modern Art and Traditional Dumplings at M50: M50 + Bandu Cafe
  • Boutiques and Beer: French Concession wandering + Boxing Cat Brewery (+ La Perla ice cream if you have the chance)
  • Han Propaganda and Xinjiang Food: PPAC + Spice Bazaar
  • Mens Clothes and Ribs: Maoming Road shopping + Grumpy Pig
  • Art and Fashion with a Side of Urban Gardening and Decadent Chocolate: K11 Art Mall + Ninethirty by Awfully Chocolate

Where to Stay in Shanghai

88Xintiandi is a cute boutique hotel in a great location right in Xintiandi. JIA Shanghai is a personal favorite, but it’s more like staying in an apartment, which is great if you need the space. URBN Hotel is similarly stylish and spacious, and also a green hotel. Both are pretty centrally located in Jing’an but still require a walk or a quick cab to the French Concession.

Resources to Help You Plan Your Trip to Shanghai

For more of my favorite things to do, eat, and see in Shanghai, be sure to read my post from a couple of years ago – between this one and that one, you’ll be all set for a fantastic trip to China’s hottest city!

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