With some input from Gary Soup and reports from Erica, I drew up a list of chow-ish places to visit on a trip to Beijing and Shanghai last week. I ended up hitting quite a few of the recommended stops, as well as others I happened by or heard reports of through other venues.
For about 70% of the places noted below, I ate alone, otherwise I was accompanied by native city dwellers. I don't think anyone spoke English at any of the restaurants I visited. Other than at DTF, I was the only Westerner I saw at any of the restaurants. As a non-Mandarin-speaking solo traveler, my key to success was sitting close enough to other diners to see and gesture to their selections. I gave up on asking for recommendations; when the server could understand me, frequently he/she pointed out bland Western-style stir fries, so I took my cues from other diners.
Jia Jia Tang Bao. The best xlb I've ever had. I ordered crab dumplings as well as pork and leek dumplings and favored the pork. No English spoken, but they have a scrap of paper with English translations you can point to.
Shanghai Uncle. This cavernous basement divided by red velvet and gold bead curtains was probably the most Lynchian experience of my visit. Here I was regarded with attention that might be warranted by a three-headed bow-tie wearing rabbit sitting down to dinner; between 6 and 9 waitstaff lingered within a few feet of me, staring at me the entire time I ate. The cooked pork belly was fanastic, however. See attached photographic evidence.
Din Tai Feng. I ordered and liked cold cucumbers with peppers and oil, garlic noodles, and shrimp and pork siu mai. The restaurant was quite swishy; about a third of the diners looked like foreigners. Probably if I returned to Shanghai or Beijing with nervous diners, I'd take them here for food we’d all like in an atmosphere that would be comfortable for them.
Xiao Nan Guo. Nothing knocked my socks off, except the bill. I had river shrimp and a unmemorable noodle dish recommended by the server.
Mr Donut. Unexpectedly, I found some of the best chain donuts I've had in my life. Light, greaseless, just the right amount of sweetness.
Beijing Dadong Kaoya Dian (Beijing Roast Duck Restaurant). I loved the duck here, which was crispy and not too fatty. Don’t miss dipping the duck skin in sugar. They also brought me “woman’s herbal soup,” described on the menu as “restoring balance.” It may have had a lot of xi to account for the lack of flavor. It’s all about the duck: don’t stray. Aside from the deliciousness of the meat, I enjoyed the show—your duck is presented, carved tableside, and then several pancakes are assembled for you until your waitress thinks you’ve got the hang of it.
Summer Palace, China World Hotel. Foodwise, this was the only disappointment of my trip. The hot dim sum came out lukewarm and many items were too doughy for my taste.
Fish Nation. A Chinese friend picked this chip shop for our dinner together. Both cod and chips were pretty decent. Probably I wouldn’t return on my own, but my friend enjoyed the novelty.
Vineyard Café. I met an expat friend for Vineyard Café’s popular English-style brunch. We had the full shebang, with sausage, eggs, beans, toast, and grilled tomatoes and mushrooms for 65RMB.
Han Cang. I loved the beef wrapped in lotus leaf and bucket of shrimp in rock salt. The setting, next to Houhai, is lovely on a nice day.
Xinjiang. This Uighur restaurant was the most charming stop on my trip. I found it through a review in Time Out; when I sat down, the teenage waitresses picked up my copy of the magazine and giggled when they were able to make out the name of the restaurant in English. They would have laughed even more had they understood their boss was described as a "Uighur Robert De Niro." I ordered mutton with bread, xinjiang cold vegetables, homemade yogurt and a Sinkiang black beer. The mutton was in a lovely rich tomato sauce; the spices tasted familiar (cinnamon and clove, maybe?) but the combination was unfamiliar. Xinjiang vegetables were sliced cucumber, green pepper, tomato and onion in vinegar. I'm trying to figure out a way to get my hands on that delicious, delicious beer back in San Francisco.
Si Huan. A friend brought me here when I asked her to show me where she shopped. A huge produce market sits across from a sizeable meat fish market; there are also several snack stands. We tried every type of dumpling and bun, a fried dough cake, and some moon cakes. All were very good, especially the steamed buns.
Mostly I ate breakfasts in little alleyways. The one I liked best was on Gouloudong Dajie, between Nanluoguxiang and Jiadaokodian, on the north side of the street. Great tofu soup, wonton soup, and fried bread, all for 1RMB or less. They sold steamed buns as well, but I never saw anyone eating them, so I didn’t investigate. The best breakfast I had I can’t identify—a Hunan friend who lives in Beijing stopped by my hutong with the best-ever pork steam buns dosed liberally with chili peppers. She didn’t know the name of the shop.
We ate near the center of town outside of Mu Tian Yu (Hua Ru?). My friend translated the restaurant name as “Beijing Dumpling Restaurant.” Here we had mutton, donkey, and shrimp dumplings and seaweed soup. The mutton dumplings were especially good. The road leading up to Mu Tian Yu is lined with orchards; we bought watermelon, chestnuts and apples as snacks.
All in all, the food was amazing. When I visit again, I would definitely plan return visits to Jia Jia Tang Bao, Xijiang, and Bejing Roast Duck Restaurant.
Attached pictures are of JJTB dumplings, Shanghai Uncle pork, Mr Donut donuts, and Hakka rock salt shrimp.