Shanghai’s been a bit of a non sequitur when it comes to non-Chinese ethnic food. Most days, I’m eating Chinese food, in one form or another. But then, sometimes, it’ll be Japanese one day, then a poorly made Brioche Dorée quiche the next, the rare Thai meal, and the inevitable hamburger. This destabilization in routine made me realize how often I used to eat Japanese, at least while I was in LA. There, I had a full, established array of oft-visited places, each with its own specialized purpose: Furaibo for izakaya-style plates and oddities, Yabu for soba and udon, Santouka for ramen, and Sushi Zo and Sugarfish for sushi.
Here in Shanghai, I haven’t been quite as fortunate, in part due to the change in quality and quantity of Japanese restaurants in more proximate, non-Gubei areas of Shanghai, and in part due to my distracted effort, or lack thereof, made so far to properly canvass my neighborhood for approvable Japanese fare. It requires some real dedication. The process of moving to and settling in a new city, from a food perspective, seems to involve this undisciplined cycle:
(1) obsession – “I will fight a bear for Taiwanese beef noodles”
(2) type A discontent / overeating / coming to one’s senses – “I think these soup dumplings are making my blood hurt”
(3) lament / type B discontent, mixed with pointed and frustrated reference to favorite foods in previously inhabited cities – “ugh, I wish there was a good meatball sub around here”
(4) exploration – “oh, hey, so many Italian places near my house”
(5) understanding / common ground / resignation – “I guess this won’t be as good as the pasta in Milan” or “I probably won’t have any fried chicken in Shanghai like that one time when the former chef from Ad Hoc made it for us,” which leads immediately too, “oh hey there, KFC spicy wings.”
It’s not necessarily in that order every time, or maybe it’s more a subtle progression.
Retroactively, last weekend marked the beginning of a long-overdue foray away into the gritty exploration part, the part that tends to be the most discouraging. I say retrospectively because I didn’t intentionally eat Japanese three out of the last five days, but after a long birthday dinner of sushi and cake on Wednesday, I had to call it like I saw it. The sushi dinner will be a different post, but the past week has entailed a fair amount of ramen. The first two bowls were at a nondescript yakitoriya-slash-noodle house whose name I didn’t bother to write down, squeezed on the second floor between Caliburger and a 7-Elevent, a lower-key alternative to the up-the-street Sushi Abuse.
The remaining (unphotographed) dishes came off the yakitori menu: a variety of skewers (chicken skin, chicken and green onion, quail egg, fatty pork, bacon & tomato), pork gyoza, chicken karaage, and miso soup. The food was not remarkable, but it was not sloppy either, and a welcome addition to the neighborhood roster of possibilities.
Next, I took a Tuesday night walk with Myra to another Japanese diner, this one a few blocks north of our usual hangouts. The humble eatery had a similar menu of soups, rice bowls, boiled and fried foods, and yakitori – with a name I remembered, albeit more for its quirkiness than anything else: Tokyo Monkeys.
An Asian friend of Myra’s from New York turned her into a fan of noodle soup, which was a rather fortuitous development, because it’s such a staple item, in all its incarnations (Taiwanese beef noodle soup, Nanzhou hand-drawn noodles, ramen, Canto wonton noodle soup, etc.). For my part, as much as I like noodle soups, I’ve always been bad about finishing the noodles, however delicious. I’d get through the bamboo, the seaweed, all the “special pork” cheek slices at Santouka, the miso soup, even if it had chili powder – but rarely have I cleaned out the noodles. First world problems.
We got a few other things: gyoza, potato salad, clams with garlic and pepper (although with too much pepper). For my main, I went with a bowl of chicken teriyaki.
I’m not sure if the green onion stalks are par for the course, but the texture was a nice departure from the sauce-heavy versions I was used to in America. Rice bowls weren’t a go-to item for me before China – they had that university-cafeteria fodder, bad Japanese strip mall restaurant staples, with that grocery store prepared-food lamp-heater kind of stigma. They were items relegated to back-of-menu and rarely ordered, or when ordered, immediately drowned in sweet chili sauce. But since I got to China, not only are Japanese rice bowls more common and more palatable, so are all the Chinese rice dishes that my favorite Philadelphia food trucks churned out. Greasy ladle-fuls of pungent sauce poured over a bed of white rice. That element skipped my stay in LA, or rather, I’m sure it existed in some faraway corridor of San Gabriel Valley, but there was nothing to rival, say, the hot chicken-eggplant from the scowling owner of Yue Kee, barking whether I wanted hot sauce or not.
Of course I want the hot sauce, you crazy cat lady.
As for Shanghai, each of my lunch trips to Shan Shan involves squinting at a wall-mounted menu of Chinese lettering, dozens of little placards with names of soup, dumplings, noodles, and rice dishes. I rehearse my order a few times before venturing ahead in the line. There is the requisite grumpy Chinese teller lady with her washed out perm, with whom it seems like you have only a very limited number of questions in your lifetime that you’re ever allowed to ask her regarding the menu (“do you have anything like soy-sauce braised pork?” or “what kinds of wontons do you have?”), and each of those questions to her seems unfathomably stupid. I learned quickly to specify whether I want the large wontons or the small ones, and that the twice-cooked pork rice is a reasonable substitute for hongshaorou.