Every few days our team will scour Shanghai’s dining scene for scrumptious dishes that’ll fill your belly without emptying your savings. Not to discriminate, we’ll search everywhere from bicycle carts to chic venues with twenty-course tasting menus, knowing that any spot could have the next Dish of the Day.
We’re not breaking any new ground here. Spicy Joint is Shanghai’s most popular Sichuan chain, boasting at least hour-long waits from when dinner starts at about 5pm until around 8:00pm – give or take depending on the specific outlet. All its dishes are delicious; both awesomely savory and ablaze with chilies (hence the name), but the crown jewel is shǔizhǔyú (水煮魚, 78RMB).
Literally translating to “water boiled fish,” shui zhu yu evokes Chinese bouillabaisse with petal-like pieces of fish (pick the shui zhu nian yu with catfish) and bean sprouts poached briefly in water, and partnered with dried chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, green onions and garlic in vegetable oil that’s heated until smokey. What you get is a circus of sensations. The fish melts in your mouth like fattier tofu, the chilies are like fiery lily pads blanketing the broth’s surface, the bean sprouts and garlic provide crunch, and the peppercorns vibrate your lips as if you were holding an electric shaver to them. The broth’s clear glassy surface belies its scorching heat and rich nuttiness. We find ourselves dumping it over rice. Our only issue is the fish is sparse, so after nabbing the few big hunks, bobbing for smaller nuggets amidst the chili carpet (especially if you’re more than one) becomes akin to sifting gold from gravel in a pan. Still worth it.
Okay, elephant in the room; Yuxin Chuan Cai’s shui zhu yu is clearly the favorite rendition, garnering around 9,000 recommendations on Dianping. However, Yuxin has as of late, succumbed to Southern Barbarian syndrome with more and more sloppiness seeping into its food and service every year, while Spicy Joint seems tastier every time we go. And shui zhu yu happens to be the best dish in the house, and a close (and cheaper) contender to Yuxin’s version.
Though the Jinling Spicy Joint is touted as the go-to, the Huaihai Zhong Lu and Ling Ling Lu stores offer more bang for your wait. Best to get to either around 8:15-8:30pm, when the crowds have ebbed a bit, but there’s still enough turnover so your dish is fresh as it’d be during the dinner rush.
Spicy Joint – Foxtown Plaza, 5/F, 899 Lingling Lu, near Caoxi Bei Lu (零陵路899号
飞洲国际广场5楼, 近漕溪北路). Tel: (0)21-6470-2777. Hours: 11am-10pm.
Last time on Dish of the Day: Baiti rolls @ Ye Li Xia Li
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