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Best Shanghainese restaurants in Shanghai
These are the seats local foodies fight for every single night
Nothing polarizes Shanghainese diners more swiftly than a discussion about Shanghainese food.
Some people love the sweet undercurrents and the saucy, braised meats while others can’t stand the strong flavors of iconic dishes like hong shao rou, sautéed eel and drunken chicken.
But you’re in the city now and well-cooked Shanghainese food is literally on your block.
If you wonder where to start, here are our standbys for great Shanghainese fare.
Hong Rui Xing (鸿瑞兴)
Hong Rui Xing is a bit of a mind trip.
First, there’s the location in a non-descript building within the Shanghai Stadium. Once you spot that, follow the neon entrance signs (they really do need those) into a three-story restaurant decked out like a Chinese teahouse with mahogany furniture and temple lanterns.
The first floor is a raucous cafeteria serving snacks. We like the eight-treasure rice, the sesame-covered meat-filled pancakes , the saucy, pliant Suzhou tofu and the bowls of hand-pulled noodles.
The second and third floors (all private dining rooms) are quieter. Instead of a menu, diners go to the open kitchen cum showroom to order from an island-like display of samples, which are plastic replicas of dishes, some eerily well-made.
Unlike most Shanghainese restaurants, waiters are actually helpful with selections and will point you towards what’s seasonal.
Good for lighter palates as Hong Rui Xing’s menu is Jiangsu-Zhejiang-Suzhou influenced, meaning less sweet, less oil.
We also like the extra touch of creativity in many dishes such as the signature xiaolongbao served in with a light teapot soup, mini glutinous dumpling with sesame inside every pellet-sized dumpling and yellow croaker casserole.
Hong Rui Xing, 1500 Zhongshan Nan Er Lu, inside Shanghai Stadium 中山南二路1500号东亚体育宾馆1-3楼, 上海体育场运动员之家内, +86 21 6427 5177, +86 21 6428 0079, 6 a.m.-9 p.m.
Lan Ting (兰亭餐厅)
“Here's how you decide whether you should open a Shanghainese restaurant," says restaurant consultant and chef Anthony Zhao.
"Ask yourself: how is your stir-fried huangsan [eel]? Do you do a terrific hongshao rou [braised pork in soy sauce]? Can you fry up a tasty xun yu [deep fried then braised fish]? And finally, are your crystal shrimp truly sparkling?
“If you can't get these four dishes just right, don't bother. Shanghainese people will never go," he continues. "This is the rule. And Lan Ting doesn't fall short on a single point.”
Lan Ting has no ambiance to speak of, but it is perpetually full of locals stuffing themselves with its Shanghainese home-style cooking.
This isn't the place to introduce your boss to the local cuisine, but where you go when you want cheap, delicious, no-fuss Shanghainese food.
Zhao recommends the ji gu jiang.
“It's tiny pieces of chicken in a very thick, very flavorful sauce made with fulu [fermented tofu],” explains Zhao. “With this one dish, you can demolish two bowls of rice.”
More on CNNGo: What's cooking? 5 essential Shanghai ingredients
Lan Ting, 107 Songshan Lu, near Taicang Lu 嵩山路107号, 近太仓路, +86 21 5306 9650, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Hai Jin Zi (海金滋)
Hai Jin Zi is a tiny lane house restaurant and the reason why there are BMWs blocking up the streets nearby.
It’s a handful of tables plus a fridge for drinks and red boxes of Maotai displayed proudly at the back.
More Spartan than homey, but then there’s the food, which is completely homestyle and tastes as if it was made by your Shanghainese grandmother.
Expect ample portions for cheap -- big chunks of meat, seafood and vegetables that have never heard of garnish, usually served up in pools of umami-laden soy braise.
Only come here if you have a solid faith in Shanghainese cuisine and its flavors plus a tolerance for noise (hacking coughs, “ganbei!” and constant chair shuffling).
The signature dish here is the pork chops which look like they got into a fight with a tangle of green onions and lost. You’ll know which ones.
We also like the creamy crab roe scrambled eggs to balance the saucy pork chops and yes, the kungpao chicken with peanuts.
More on CNNGo: 6 hidden Shanghai restaurants
Hai Jin Zi, 240 Jinxian Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu 进贤路240号, 近陕西南路 ,+86 21 6255 0371, 11: 45 a.m.-1: 45 p.m., 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
With its curmudgeonly waiters and tiny, crowded dining room, the original Jesse location on Tianping Lu is not just a meal, it’s an experience.
Crammed in with the Shanghainese regulars here, you’ll find tourists speaking Cantonese, Taiwanese or English at a mile per minute and snapping photos at the same speed.
Rica Lou, dining editor at Ganlan magazine, calls the original Jesse her “hands-down favorite Shanghainese restaurant.” It's the creamy crab roe potato soup that wins her over every time.
Lou gives us some help envisioning it (or, you can just look at the photo above): “They cook the potatoes until they fall apart, and then add crab roe and some butter.
Finally, they cover the soup with big flecks of freshly grated black pepper,” she says.
Shanghainese food critic Shen Hongfei seconds Lou's recommendation, adding that he likes the Shaoxing-wine-marinated crab.
Think of it as a more advanced lesson in wine-marinated foods -- meaning that you can try it after first cutting your teeth on the excellent drunken chicken also offered at Jesse.
For an appetizer (or dessert), try the xin tai ruan, a sweet dish of red jujubes stuffed with soft, glutinous rice cake.
Two of Jesse's signature dishes, the eight treasure duck and green onion fish head, require 24 hours' notice.
More on CNNGo: Shanghai's best hairy crab dishes
Jesse, 41 Tianping Lu, near Huaihai Zhong Lu 天平路41号, 近淮海中路, +86 21 6282 9260, www.xinjishi.com, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-midnight
Nan Ling (南伶酒家)
At least you won't miss it in a taxi -- Nan Ling is a cube of a restaurant painted almost completely shamrock green, with the exception the entrance, which is white and Romansque, complete with Roman columns.
The odd decor continues inside with frilly curtains, floral wall paper and a mishmash of traditional and contemporary art (including 3D breasts on some “works of art”).
Order quickly so that you can focus on other things, like the delicious crispy Nan Ling roast duck which you eat like Peking Duck with thin wrappers, split scallions, the decadent crab roe lion head meatballs in golden broth, honey smoked ham (a sweet-salty dish of steamed Chinese ham), sautéed river shrimp, and tender chicken under a sheet of fresh scallions.
Nan Ling is Shanghainese and Yangzhou cuisine so you’ll see classics from both on the menu.
The Shanghainese side is influenced by the lighter Huaiyang palate, so Nanling is a good choice for newcomers to the cuisine.
More on CNNGo: Shanghai's oldest restaurants
Nanling, 168 Yueyang Lu, near Yongjia Lu 岳阳路168号, 近永嘉路, +86 21 6467 7381, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (last order)
Fu 1088 (福 1088)
“Fu 1088 is the hardest restaurant in Shanghai to get a reservation,” complains food critic Shen Hongfei. “But the environment is very good. It's a little fusion, but doesn't go overboard."
Located on an unassuming corner of Zhenning Lu and Yuyuan Lu, Fu 1088 is housed in a 1930s colonial villa. Instead of a dining room, guests dine in private rooms furnished with antiques.
Another veteran food critic Jiang Liyang says that the food at Fu 1088 ranges from modern to "very authentic,” but is accepted by both Chinese and foreigners.
On a menu of tweaked Shanghainese specialties, you'll find everything from traditional hongshao rou to creamy, huangyu noodle soup served in a mug. Modern dishes include goose liver poached in sake.
Shen recommends the crab with egg white, a delicately creamy dish brought to the table in an actual eggshell.
Restaurant consultant and chef Anthony Zhao favors Fu's drunken chicken, which is crowned in a strong rice wine granita and then sprinkled with goji berries. Or, try the lacquered xun yu, served hot in a plump, meaty stack.
Fu 1088, 375 Zhenning Lu, near Yuyuan Lu 镇宁路375号, 近愚园路, +86 21 5239 7878, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-11 p.m.