Escape: Where to Eat in Shanghai

It was my very first time in Shanghai, China and it couldn’t have been better: we did a ton of walks through the districts, marvelled at the many pink and white magnolia flowers that had just bloomed, and planned our days around where we would eat for lunch and dinner.  We ate so much and we ate so well! Mostly at places serving various Chinese cuisines, so we could enjoy the many very seasonal vegetables and dishes only available in the weeks of early spring. We’ve also visited the Jing’An temple, the Yayoi Kusama exhibition, the Arts & Crafts museum (where I should’ve bought that glass statuette of my Chinese zodiac sign), wandered through gardens and roamed many, many, many malls. Mainly to walk off the last meal and create space for the next…

There is one aspect of our travel we all benefitted from immensely: we visited a  friend now based in Berlin, who was born and raised in Shanghai, namely Ash Lee of Chungking Noodles. I don’t speak any Chinese and came to realize that it’s quite tough to navigate without knowledge of the language. The few times we did try we stuck to foreigner-friendly places with an English menu and just accepted that what we received often wasn’t what we ordered. Which can be an issue if you’re not in the mood for meat or fish, but overall we were quite successful.

Hence, many of the places and dishes in this list aren’t really accessible to people not speaking Chinese, Ash usually did the ordering for us. Most snack places, like the ice cream and tea stores have English menus where you should point at the item you want instead of ordering it verbally. (We thought a laser pointer might be handy when the menu is only on a board behind the counter, like at HeyTea). Many things are done via wechat, from ordering cabs to bubble tea, to actual payments. Some stores will be surprised you want to pay with cash, but just insist on it. A good thing to try would be an instant translating app (that works offline), I would definitely bring that the next time.

So here’s where we ate and why I liked it. It’s only Shanghai, we did a trip to Hangzhou at the end of our tour which has lovely temples, gardens, and a culinary history museum but the restaurants we picked weren’t outstanding so I don’t have particular recommendations.

Xin Le Noodles House 心乐面馆

Falling out of the plane in the morning after such a long flight was rough… so first thing we did after storing our luggage was meet with friends and order a ton of noodles, sour plum lemonade and some stir fried pea shoots at a casual eatery close by the French Concession district. I was veeeery tired, but I managed to eat up all these noodles with sauce. Which, admittedly, didn’t help with the jetlag. Afterwards we schlepped ourselves through the streets, happy to find a Happy Lemon lemonade stand where we purchased a gigantic cup of lemon kumquat iced tea that pushed us through the day.
120 Jinxian Rd 进贤路120号, Shanghai

La Famille 南麓浙里

Miraculously still awake, we followed Ash to this slightly upscale but still pretty casual restaurant specialized in Shanghainese cuisine, which is a more mellow and slightly sweet type of cuisine. The emphasis is placed on the original flavour of the ingredients used, it’s sweet and slightly sour, and has loads of veggies to try. At La Famille we had spring bamboo shoots for the first time, one of the many very seasonal vegetables we’d taste, and probably my favourite. The fresh, braised shoots are pictured in the back on salad leaves. In the front is a salad that was one of my favourite dishes of the whole trip: a quite thick leaved salad with very young walnuts. The textures of these were so interesting, almost meaty in quality. We did not find out what the Western translation of this salad might be, I’ve also only had it in this restaurant and saw it packaged in one fancy supermarket. But it will remain on my mind forever.
Julu Road No. 768, 1F

Ice Monster

Instead of lunch, our first meal of the second day was a mountain of shaved ice at Ice Monster, a chain that might’ve left Shanghai after we did, not entirely sure about that. If you see the monster around (Beijing and Taiwan have a couple), make sure you try it. The shaved ice is flavoured through and through and, if you order the boba tea version, comes with tapioka pearls! Portions are giant and super delicious!

Benzhen Sichuan Cuisine 本甄精品川菜

After loads more of walking around and around, we were ready for the full chili-serving everyone kind of expects when traveling to China. Ash ordered all the chili and Sichuan peppercorn filled dishes for us, from vegetarian Mapo tofu (soft soybean curd cubes in a chili and beancurd sauce), to cabbage with (ton of) dried chili, to frog stew and a dish called “find the chicken”, which is basically chili but also has some parts of a chicken in it. Eating this mouth-tingly and heat-inducing spicy is exhausting but also very joyful, you won’t be able to stop even though it kind of hurts. Mala, numbing spiciness, is very important in Sichuan food, and I made the experience that if you have a lot of that and your mouth is kind of numbed out, many things start to taste very sour. Which is an unexpected add-on, I’d say. We had a private room in this restaurant, which is handy if you wanna sweat in peace. The place was packed at peak dinner time around 6pm, so if you come a bit later it should be less of a problem to get a table.
Hubin Road No. 150, 3F, Shanghai

老昌兴

Shanghainese soup dumplings, xiao long bao, are iconic but not readily available as a vegetarian version so I sat this one out while my friends stuffed their faces with the dimpled, soup filled balls. This eatery is very casual with a huge number of people swiping through. The feel is quite canteen, dumplings are served quick and aplenty. I enjoyed a noodle soup with mushrooms and gluten balls (the brown slime in the image) and all the braised gluten (top right, Shaniu in Berlin has a great version of this). The broth of the soup was so earthy delicious, I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything. Would love to have a bowl of this ready for breakfast any morning.
2428 Xietu Road, Shanghai

Zakuzaku ice cream

There are a ton of malls in Shanghai, some stand alone, some just to adorn a metro station and many of them filled with tons of food options. One of my favourite ice cream kinds of all kinds is soft serve, and the one at this metro adjacent mall is amazingly creamy – Zakuzaku is a brand from Hokkaido, Japan and actually does cream puffs, but why not do soft serve on the side? There are three Zakuzaku places in Shanghai, so keep your eyes open.
Metro City, Zhaojiangbang Road No. 1111, Shanghai

Jiang 疆

Xinjiang food was entirely new to me. Xinjiang is a huge region in northwestern China, bordering countries from Russia to India. It’s also home to Muslim Chinese, mainly the Uyghur people (who I know from my trip to Uzbekistan), and this influences the food. Hand pulled noodles is a big thing in Xinjiang, whether it’s Uyghur style or other minorities’ dishes, you can find it under the name laghman or, Chinese, lamian. Ash chose Jiang for us, a modern place inside of a mall. We had the most delicious cold, spongy tofu with chili sauce, egg and tomato (a personal fav of mine, that some people dare to call basic), and noodles in a sour sauce that easily made it to the top dishes of our trip list.
I have not found any Xinjiang place in Berlin, but there are two Uyghur places in Munich, that might be worth checking out.
Jiaozhou Rd, Jingan Qu, Shanghai

喜茶 Hey Tea

So, Shanghai (as much of East and South East Asia) is great for leisurely beverages – there’s a ton of lemonade and tea shops around with everything from passion fruit lemonade to yakult green tea (so good!) and obviously bubble tea. You can constantly sip on some refreshing beverage and we made use of this luxury a whole lot. The current star of the bunch is a gigantic chain called Hey Tea, that despite around 9 people making tea and fruit beverages, is so busy, it’ll take about 25mins from ordering to receiving your tea. Most of them are huge, more like a meal or snack than just a beverage but it is a delight you should not miss out on. It can be hard to order without knowing Chinese (my best results were always when Ash ordered for me), but just go for it. And definitely try the green tea with lightly salted cheese topping, which is really just unsweetened cream. They also have tea flavored soft serve (with boba, if you like)!
10 days of daily Hey Tea got me in the mood to try the last remaining bubble tea shops in Berlin, but the results have been disappointing (despite everything made at ComeBuy, which is just as slow as Hey Tea, even though they don’t even have a third of the orders.)

Fu He Hui 福和慧

We had one really fancy meal while in Shanghai at the No. 30 of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant list, adorned with one Michelin star: Fu He Hui is located in a modern building with very minimal decor, almost Japanese in feel. It’s part of a restaurant group under renowned chef Tony Lu and it’s the only one in the group serving exclusively vegetarian menus. We start with edible leafs, then intricately arranged spring bamboo with mushroom broth, a pumpkin filled with rolled pumpkin and sticky rice, white fungus in seaweed broth, and finally a giant (vegetarian!) soup dumpling with an almost too generous topping of fresh truffle. Pictured here is the dessert, black sesame ice cream in the form of a stone, placed on a stone dusted with matcha. We also went for the tea pairing which was my personal highlight of the meal. Not only because their tea cups are stunning (and there’s a different one with every tea), but also because the tea is just super interesting and unusual, while not overpowering.
1037 Yuyuan Rd, Changning Qu, Shanghai

Softree

Softree is a Korean soft serve ice cream brand with a ton of extravagant ice cream options on their website (tomato ice cream? soft serve topped with grated Italian cheese??). Their main offer in Shanghai is their signature organic and very milky soft serve topped with cotton candy (no kidding). I did not  go for the cotton candy, but I had a portion of their ice cream and it’s deliciously good. We specifically went into this mall just to have this ice cream and yes, that’s how you do it.
K11 Mall Middle Huaihai Road No. 300, Shanghai

Tarhar 塔哈尔

As said before, I was super impressed with Xianjiang food and happily agreed to visit another renowned place to enjoy it. This one’s located in (another) mall and is also represented in the cover photo of this post. Here, I especially enjoyed a dish I’m usually sneered at for because it’s so simple: egg, tomato and fresh noodles. I can’t help but love it and I wish there was a place in Berlin to have it (except from my home, because it is ridiculously easy to make, they say).
If you happen to go to Tarhar or the area, you can easily walk from there to one of the most interesting sites we have visited: Longhua Temple has what I thought was the most exciting art work, one of them being golden statues of the 500 arhats, all of them with individual facial expressions. We only found out later it’s the largest and most authentic temple in Shanghai!
2701 Xietu Rd, WanTiGuan, Xuhui Qu, Shanghai

云南小市 Slurp!

Alright, on to another special Chinese cuisine, that of Yunnan, a southwestern province bordering Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. Like Xianjiang, I’ve never had it before and was super excited. We went to Slurp! on a night without our super supportive Ash and the language barrier was no issue (which is why she recommended it to us…). This place is teeny-tiny and packed, but even if you have to wait it’s very worth it. We ordered the mashed potato with mustard greens and chilis, mint salad with pickled pear, and noodles with very fresh tofu (and chilis), a famous Yunnan dish I have amateurishly recreated many times at home since. Everything was super delicious, fresh and spicy, slightly lighter than other Chinese food and adorned with many fresh herbs.
Do De Li on Berlin’s Kantstraße is serving one of the signature Yunnan soups called Crossing the Bridge, and I will definitely check these out asap.
70 Maoming N Rd, Jingan Qu, Shanghai

金花 Jin Hua – “Golden Flower”

My friend Daliah Spiegel, who I know from Vienna, moved to Shanghai to open an Austrian restaurant and brunch place and after doing that for a couple of years just recently closed it to renovate and reopen it as a Yunnan restaurant in cooperation with the team from Slurp!. I didn’t know about that before and was very pleasantly surprised after stepping into her newly decorated spot after getting soaked in the rain. She served us lotus roots, fried goat cheese (a Yunnan speciality) and a salad with pickled leek flowers. Yunnan food uses fresh chilis, herbs and lime juice, so it’s that perfect combo of sour and spicy and herbilicious.
408 Shaanxi North Road, Shanghai

Speak Low Bar

You will enter this speakeasy through a secret / not so secret door in the back of a bar tools store on Fuxing Road, to discover two delightful rooms where skilled bartenders wait for your order. (There’s apparently a third room only accessible to members / trusty clients). All of the drinks we tried were very elaborate, one came in a pyramid of wooden cubes with the lower one filled with dried ice, another was served in a whole pineapple and came with a paper parasol. It’s bordering on kitsch, but the drinks are excellent so it’s more of an entertaining add-on than an annoying gimmick.
579 Fuxing Middle Road, Shanghai

Hai Di Lao

We couldn’t leave without eating hot pot, so on our final day in Shanghai we went for the full experience, including complimentary manicure while waiting (were too late for that), a buffet of sauce to make your own, covers for our phones, jackets and ourselves (aprons). This four part hot pot was made of tomato, mushroom, fish and chilli broth and we ordered a ton of stuff to put into. From blood cake and duck feets for my friends, to tofu, lotus roots and cabbage for myself. In between we got the hand pulled noodles with a very exciting pulling performance by a dancing chef. All in all a delightful experience I’d like to repeat any time.
In Berlin, you can have hot pot at Lucky Star and, irregularly, at Liu in Mitte.
4/F, 1 Dapu Lu, near Xujiahui Lu, Shanghai

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