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