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Yu Gardens: A Surprising Place to Find Something Good to Eat

When was the last time you ate food worth remembering, let alone writing about, at a major tourist trap? Shanghai has a stack of terrific tourist traps, like The Pearl Tower, The Bund, and Yu Gardens – all beautiful, and all famous for something other than their food. 
Escaping the pressing, elbowing crowds one day at Yu Gardens, I literally stumbled upon this food-court style eatery by accident. It was to be my lucky day. As I climbed the stairs from the ground floor entry, where an uninspiring selection of fried snacks was on display; I reached the upper floor, where in all honesty, the situation looked worse. The vast space was occupied by rows of bench seats and orange plastic tables bolted to the floor, the windows overlooking the exquisite Ming Dynasty Huxintin Teahouse covered in some kind of blue adhesive coating and locked against rogue window-openers like myself. Along the far wall was a row of serving hatches, with a cafeteria style pile of greasy plastic trays.
Disheartened but starving, and expecting nothing more than some modestly edible and grossly over-priced noodles, I took a tray and walked past the cashier seated at the entrance to the rows of hatches, expecting to find very little of interest. In fact, the very opposite occurred, and I did one lap, then another, then a third, trying to limit what I’d like to try to only three or four dishes. Everything looked fresh and delicious, the steam billowing from the kitchen behind the hatches carried scents of ginger, pork and seafood, and the sizzle of wok frying.
Let me take you on a short tour of the goods on offer: I didn’t eat all the foods pictued here, but I certainly put in a sterling effort and hope to complete tasting everything on my next visit. 
The seafood hatch. Steamed crab with ginger and chili. Whole crispy fried scampi. Velvety seafood congee.
More crabs, a different variety this time, simply steamed. Chicken barbecued on lemongrass skewers. Pork wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Jumbo freshwater snails, shells blackly glistening. Next to those, Shanghai’s own treasure, xiaolongbao – steamed dumplings filled with soup, pork, and crab meat.
Gigantic xiaolongbao, complete with straw to suck up the soup, each in its own steamer basket. How gorgeous are they?
Yet more crabs, alongside Shanghai specialty fried nian gao (chewy rounds of rice noodle fried with greens), and guotie (pot-sticker pork dumplings).
The ‘desert’ section – these deep purple unmelting ‘ice-creams’ are in fact sweetened yam paste. At least they adorned them with sweetly smelling golden yellow osmanthus flowers, my favourite scent. Next to them, diamonds of translucent almond jelly.

The dimsum (or dianxin) station had flaky durian pastries, sesame balls, spring rolls, and dozens of little steamed dumplings holding shrimp, pork, and chive and peanut fillings.
The egg custard tarts looked like a particularly good way to finish off the meal, and I was right. They were great.
And that, dear friends, is just a sampling of the many, many foods you may wish to try, with no dish costing more than 20 yuan ($3). My meal of four dishes and a freshly squeezed watermelon juice cost 55 yuan ($8). Unbelievable. Should you be visiting Shanghai anytime soon, here’s what the cafeteria looks like from the outside, just opposite the Huxintin Teahouse.
(Should you know of other great tourist trap eateries around Shanghai, please let me know!)

Song Yun Tower Xiao Chi Restaurant
2nd floor, Song Yun Tower
Yu Gardens, Shanghai
Open daily for lunch and dinner
  • Jeannie

    What a lovely post drool worthy post this is:D So much yummy food!

  • Fiona

    Thanks Jeannie! Next time I will definitely be taking the whole family so we can load up several trays and try everything. Except that purple yam paste.

  • Mary Anne

    Oh, hungry! Although I'm delighted to be back home, I'm surprised to find that I'm actually kind of sort of missing Shanghai and the foods of Shanghai– had a jian bing craving yesterday and couldn't do anything about it! Gah! Had great Syrian felafel though. And awesome congee and spicy tofu triangles and cold spicy pork noodles. Vancouver is great for un-gringo-ized world food.

  • Fiona

    Isn't it interesting what you miss when you're away! Going home acts as a kind of filter I guess, siphoning off all the foods you just thought you liked but didn't really…Enjoy Vancouver! The food sounds great!

  • Robyn

    Next time….can I come???

  • christa @ mental foodie

    Gosh I always get hungry reading your posts (okay maybe not when you wrote about bugs 🙂

    This is the first time I'd seen xiaolongbao sesrved with a straw! Makes sense though. Guess have to be careful not to "drink" it too fast since it's usually steaming hot!

  • Fiona

    To Christa – you didn't fancy eating the bugs? The giant xiaolongbao are definitely tastier and yes, watch out for the scalding hot contents!

    To Robyn – anytime!

  • KEcker

    Your photos are always so beautiful. The food looks amazing!!

  • Fiona

    Thank you so much! I guess it's easier to take good photos of great food 🙂

  • shaz

    That looks fantastic. I would have gone crab crazy. Love the giant xiaolongbao with their own straws. Brilliant.

  • Fiona

    I think I can say, having never had the pleasure of meeting you Shaz, you would have LOVED it. A Chinese food smorgasbord!

  • Fiona

    I think I can say, having never had the pleasure of meeting you Shaz, you would have LOVED it. A Chinese food smorgasbord!

  • Jules

    We cannot offer you anything like that for $3 here in Brisvegas but for $3.50 you'll get a decent flat white. Where are you keen to go when you come home, love?

  • Mitch aka The Chile Doctor

    Fi, Yes, I got good eats at Yu Gardens. Been some years since I was last there, but the memory lingers. A great place to take friends from USA, I found, and they also won't starve!

  • Fiona

    To Jules – I'll take a $3.50 flat white (that's Australian for coffee) any time, day or night. And please let it be made with milk that came from a cow, and not from a box, or a sachet, or with a side order of melamine.

    And when I go back home for a visit in two weeks or so, I have a long, long list of places to eat at…Anouk, Simpatico, that pink flamingo cafe with the fabulous cakes made by the owner's Greek mother….the list goes on. Cake features heavily.

  • croquecamille

    Oh, my God, those giant xiaolongbao are the best thing I've ever seen.

  • Matt

    I caught myself reading your blog a lot lately. Haven't been back to China for over a year now and I'm dying for something other than burgers and American Chinese food… Thank you so much for the pics and descriptions!!!

    And egg tarts! Oh, egg tarts……. Not sure if you have tried those from Lilian's or KFC. I refuse to eat any egg tart outside of those two places.

  • Fiona

    Matt you poor thing! Get yourself to a decent Chinese eatery ASAP!!
    I love Lillian's egg tarts with their crispy little yellow envelopes, and my Dad is a huge fan of KFC's egg tarts when he visits…I think you're spot on, those two are two of the best.

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