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.
The ability to brave Wei Xiang Zhai’s unforgiving atmosphere is a good determinant of where you’re a true Shanghailander or a “laowai out of water.” The space is cramped like stock car, hygiene is minimal, and the whole time you’re eating, ceaseless crowds are clamoring around your table like gulls around a beached sea bass. And the maitre d’s got little patience for your beginner Chinese. But bite the belt, their sumptuous sesame noodles (麻酱面, ma jiang mian, 9RMB) are well worth the hassle.
As you can probably gauge from the pic, the dish is simple; a bowl of spooled wheat noodles slicked with molten sesame-chili paste and flecked with a few scallions. It’s also freaking delicious, mostly due to the noodles, which are boiled to a perfectly tensile, yet silky consistency, and the dressing, which, let’s just say we want a fondue fountain of the stuff. It not only tastes wonderfully creamy, but also seamlessly collapses the gap between sweet and salty – no mean feat. We’ve had many a version that tastes like they dolloped gobs of Skippy peanut butter on egg noodles.
Not enough to sate your appetite? Fortunately, this dish is just the foundation. You can pile on various toppings from pork belly (五花肉, wǔhuāròu) to braised gluten (烤夫, kaofu), like it’s a savory noodle sundae. Go with the pork belly. It’s cold, and the perfect antidote to the sultry weather. You’re going to also want a bowl of beef soup (小牛汤, xiao niu tang), a light yet hearty curry-infused bowl of beef stock that’ll help cut the peanut-buttery wallop of the noodle marinade.
As you might gather, navigating Wei Xiang Zhai requires preparedness. After you order at the counter, they’ll give you a ticket to hold onto until you find a seat, which is an adventure unto itself. Our advice: hover over customers about to finish up their meal. It’s not rude – you actually draw more stares if you mill about the front the whole time. And don’t be shy about sitting down at a table where everyone else knows each other. They might even help you with the menu if you’re looking flustered enough. Once you’re seated, fasten the ticket to one of the numbered clothespins and give it to a nearby waitress. Oh, and make sure no one accidentally yoinks your noodles while they’re traveling from the kitchen to your table, a common occurrence in a sit-downer where everyone orders the same thing.
P.S. They don’t have English menus here (a given), so take down all the aforementioned Chinese dish names.
Wei Xiang Zhai – 14 Yandang Lu, near Huaihai Lu (雁荡路14号, 近淮海中路). Tel: (0)21-5383-9032. Hours: 6:15am-9pm. Closest metro stop: Huangpi Road, line 1.
Last time on Dish of the Day: Veggie bao @ any baozi stand
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