Best places to eat Hangbang cai in Hangzhou
The Song Dynasty poet, Su Dongpo (苏东坡), once wrote that the best banquets in the world are made up of Hangbang cai, or Hangzhou food.
Unlike dishes from northern China, Hangzhou cuisine is heavy on steaming, boiling and roasting.
Famous Hangbang cai, such as Dongpo pork (东坡肉), beggar’s chicken (叫花鸡), long jing fried shrimp (龙井虾仁) and West Lake vinegar fish (西湖醋鱼), are favored by foodies throughout the country for their light taste. And they're just perfect when taken with a pot of tea while contemplating the calm of the West Lake.
More on CNNGo: Insider's guide to Hangzhou West Lake
Here are our picks for the five best places to get Hangbang cai in Hangzhou.
Have we missed one of your favorites? Let us know in the comments section below.
Shan Wai Shan (山外山)
Known for: A wide selection of traditional Hangzhou dishes and seafood sourced from the lakes in and around the city.
Though at the more expensive end of the scale (it used to be run by the people behind the extravagant Lou Wai Lou restaurant, where foreign dignitaries are often feasted by state officials), Shan Wai Shan’s use of fresh ingredients and idyllic outdoor setting in the middle of Hangzhou’s Botanical Garden make the price (RMB 60-100 per person on average) worth it.
Take a taxi to the Botanical Garden's north gate, and from there it's just a 10-minute walk to the restaurant.
Nature lovers can opt to dine outdoors on the second-floor balcony when the weather is good.
Don’t leave without ordering: Long jing shrimp (龙井虾仁, RMB 98), a plate of succulent baby shrimps fried in long jing tea, or the beggar’s chicken (叫花鸡, RMB 98 per whole chicken).
Legend has it that beggar’s chicken takes its name from a local mendicant who caught a chicken but had no pot to cook it with.
He wrapped it with lotus leaves and baked it in clay, and the result was chicken meat so tender that word of the cooking method spread even to the Emperor of the Qing dynasty.
At Shan Wai Shan, the chicken is marinated in a mixture of Shaoxing rice wine, sugar, and soy sauce for four hours before being wrapped in lotus leaves and baked in an oven.
According to head chef Shen Yinfa, many restaurants cut corners when it comes to preparing long jing shrimp because the tea leaves don’t come cheap.
“Not only do we use pure long jing tea leaves to prepare the sauce, we only use the best quality leaves, which are picked during the peak season just before Qing Ming Festival each year," chef Shen says. "They are boiled with water and then frozen to retain their freshness for use throughout the year.”
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Shan Wai Shan (山外山), 8 Yuquan Lu, near Taoyuan Ling 玉泉路8号, 近桃源岭, 10:30 a.m.-1.30 p.m., 4:30-8:30 p.m., +86 571 8799 5866, www.shanwaishan.com
Grandma’s Kitchen (外婆家)
Known for: A real value-for-money experience combining skillfully prepared dishes, friendly service and an easily accessible lakeside location.
Despite being only 12 years old, the restaurant chain has outlets in 30 locations around Hangzhou. It has also branched out to the other cities in Zhejiang Province, as well as Shanghai and Beijing.
Service is taken seriously here -- the waiters have undergone significant training about the food and are able to expertly recommend dishes. There’s even a phone number that you can call should you receive dismal service.
The only downside is the restaurant only accepts reservations of 10 or more. The rest have to take a ticket and join the queue, which can lead to a half-hour wait. If you want to dodge the crowds, go before 6:30 p.m. or after 8:30 p.m.
Though the Macheng Lu branch was the chain’s first restaurant, the one on Hubin Lu is the most central and just a minute’s stroll from the West Lake.
Don’t leave without ordering: Long jing tea chicken (龙井茶香鸡), which is the restaurant’s most expensive dish at RMB 45.
The exclusive recipe is a contemporary marriage of two of Hangzhou’s traditional dishes: the beggar’s chicken and long jing shrimp.
According to chef Yuan Zixiang, wrapping the tea-soaked chicken in parchment paper then roasting, rather than boiling, makes the meat amazingly moist with a fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
“It was the philosophy of our owner Wu Guoping when he opened the chain’s first restaurant that it should provide food that fellow Chinese citizens are able to afford and enjoy in a nice setting,” says business manager Liu Wei.
“We plan to have about 100 restaurants in China in the next five years and 150 worldwide in the next one to two decades."
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Grandma’s Kitchen (外婆家), 2/F, 3 Hubin Lu, near Pinghai Lu 湖滨路3号2楼, 近平海路, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m., +86 571 8517 5778, +86 571 8515 3911, www.waipojia.com
Kui Yuan Guan (奎元馆)
Known for: Tasty and affordable noodles with a long history and bizarre origins.
The 800-seat space is clean, spacious and makes a good pit stop while trawling Jiefang Lu, the city’s main shopping artery.
Though the cooking style technically originated from nearby Ningbo, this 154-year-old restaurant set up by an Anhui businessman has become such an establishment in Hangzhou that gobbling down a bowl of shrimp and fried eel -- the restaurant's specialty -- is a must-do for tourists to Hangzhou.
The shop is supposedly named after a poor student who was treated to a bowl of noodles when he came to take his imperial examinations in Hangzhou. He gratefully returned to the restaurant when he successfully become a scholar.
Don’t leave without ordering: The sautéed shrimp and eel noodles (虾爆鳝面, RMB 35), bamboo shoot and salted vegetable pork noodles (片儿面, RMB 10).
Ingredients are abundant in each dish, and rather than using a generic MSG-laden soup base, the broth in each of the two bowls of noodles actually tastes and smells of the ingredients.
The chewy noodles are handmade, using a special technique that’s more than 100 years old.
“A lot of attention to detail goes into our food preparation,” says manager Zheng Peng. “We are very precise about the weight of the eels we select. For example, we insist that they are soaked in water for at least three days to remove the mud taste.
"We also source most of our ingredients from within Zhejiang Province to ensure that the quality of our dishes remains the same over the years.”
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Kui Yuan Guan (奎元馆), 124 Jiefang Lu, near Zhonghe Gaojia 解放路124号, 近中河高架, 9 a.m-9 p.m., +86 571 8702 8626, www.hzkyg.com
Guangfu Lu Food Street (光复路特色小吃街)
Known for: Traditional Hangzhou snacks -- including lesser-seen delicacies such as rabbit’s head and mock turtle soup -- and a bustling outdoor atmosphere.
All sorts of greasy snacks, meaty dishes and sweet treats can be found in more than 50 stalls on both sides of Guangfu Lu, a little lane just off the touristy Hefang Lu.
It’s the best option for lone travelers or visitors who aren’t in Hangzhou long enough to make a round of the city’s popular eateries. You can sample smaller individual portions of traditional favorites along the street, such as beggar’s chicken and Dongpo pork for a fifth of the price that restaurants charge.
Scarce seating is available in the form of benches in the middle of the lane; so be prepared to share a table with hungry Chinese families.
Don’t leave without ordering: Beggar’s chicken (叫花鸡, RMB 25) from stall C39, which provides gloves and pretty takeaway paper bags on request, and scholar cakes at stall C14 (状元糕, RMB 10 for four pieces), which are starchy, brownie-look-alike rice cakes with auspicious characters printed on them.
Because the word for cake sounds the same as “top” in Chinese, young hopefuls sitting for the imperial examinations in the old days often ate the cakes in hope of good grades.
Other good bets include lotus root starch soup (西湖藕粉, RMB5, stall C26) -- which is said to be good for one’s complexion when drunk regularly -- and spare ribs and rice wrapped in lotus leaf (荷叶排骨饭, RMB10, Stall C35), a fragrant rice and meat combination served in a little bamboo basket.
“This street used to be completely empty, but since this food street was built six years ago, it has been packed with people every day,” says the stallholder of booth C26, surnamed Liu.
“There are people from everywhere -- both tourists and stallholders selling regional cuisines from their hometowns in Quzhou, Fuzhou and even as faraway as Sichuan -- so you can really eat your way through China.”
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Guangfu Lu Food Street, near No. 88 Hefang Lu 光复路特色小吃街, 近河坊街88号, 9 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Songdu Food City (宋都美食城)
Known for: Savory snacks and barbecued seafood in an indoor food court-like setting.
The two-year-old indoor food court is an option for diners who like to enjoy their street snacks in heated comfort in the middle of winter, or air-conditioning on sweltering days.
Tiled off-white floors and a skylight in the middle that lets in floods of sunlight give the place an appearance of cleanliness. Foodies can choose to dine on sufficient bright orange plastic benches.
Around 20 stalls line the walls on the first floor, while a Taiwanese fast-food joint occupies the second floor.
Don’t leave without ordering: Crispy fried mini crabs (香辣蟹, RMB 10 per stick), deep fried bean curd rolls (干炸响铃, RMB 10), steamed egg custard in bamboo (杭式竹筒蒸蛋, RMB 5), Hangzhou chicken rolls (杭州卷鸡, RMB 5 per portion of six rolls) and West Lake snails cooked in spicy broth (西湖大田螺, RMB 10 per bowl), a Chinese answer to escargot.
“There are many little snacks here you will not find the big restaurants serving, nor are there many street hawkers left selling these outside anymore," says a stall assistant surnamed Li.
"We’re popular with families but young people like to come here with friends and have a snack in the afternoon too.”
Songdu Food City (宋都美食城), 21 Xiaojing Xiang, off Hefang Lu 河坊街小井巷21号, 9:30 a.m.-11 p.m.