Twenty years ago, lilong, the tiny alleyways and courtyard houses that make up the backstreets of Shanghai, were packed with tiny mom-and-pop restaurants serving longtang cai, alleyway cuisine, to office workers and neighboring residents. But as the city’s construction boom demolished many of these lanes, the longtang dishes went back into grandmothers’ kitchens, only available to those who were heading home for lunch.
Now the home-style cuisine is seeing a revival from within the city’s remaining lilong, most notably with the opening of Mi Xiang Yuan. Translated as “Fragrant Rice Garden,” Mi Xiang Yuan is a family-run establishment led by Anthony Zhao. The closest thing Shanghai has to a local celebrity chef, Zhao has cooked in some of the city’s best Western kitchens and often appears on culinary TV shows, whipping up Shanghainese specialties and revealing hidden gems around the city. Now with the help of his uncle and cousin, he’s serving hearty Shanghainese bento box lunches that hearken back to the good old days of alleyway dining.
The address for Mi Xiang Yuan is on Shanghai’s busiest shopping street, Huaihai Lu, but like most lilong, the street number is deceptive. Hungry patrons have to duck down the northern side of Madang Lu and down an alley to find the tiny dining room, but the hunt is well worth it.
The simple picture menu is entirely in Chinese, but the photos speak enough words to get stomachs growling. A good place to start is the house specialty, marinated pork rice bowl (卤肉饭, lǔròu fàn). This dish, consisting of a bowl of glittering rice grains topped with sweet, fatty pork, pickled turnips and a soy egg, is the epitome of Shanghainese comfort food. “Lion’s head meatballs” (蛤蜊牛蒡肉圆套餐, gélí niúbàng ròu yuán tàocān), another traditional local treat, are weighty spheres of pork served in a light broth flavored with clams and vegetables.
Each main dish is accompanied by three healthy sides that change daily but always include a soup, vegetable and tofu of the day. Zhao’s family connections include an organic farm a province away, so the venue imports fresh ingredients twice a week and gathers the rest at the local wet market every morning. The veggies might include crunchy julienned potatoes with pickled chilies, sautéed bok choy and cabbage stir-fried with carrots.
While the full-on set lunch menu is more than enough for any hungry diner, a meal wouldn’t be the same without a side order of kǎofú (烤麸). The spongy braised wheat gluten soaks up its star anise and cinnamon-flavored marinade and comes packed with earthy wood ear mushrooms, boiled peanuts and tofu strips. We suggest washing it all down with a warm glass of winter melon tea (冬瓜奶茶, dōngguā nǎichá). The giant gourd is boiled down with black tea, milk and brown sugar for a deliciously sweet dessert that can be drunk.
Mi Xiang Yuan’s popularity is palpable during peak dining times. After just a month in operation, Zhao and company had to rent another dining room in the lilong behind the original store to accommodate the overflow, and it’s not unusual to be shepherded to a table shared with other diners who are noisily devouring their food. If you come after 2 p.m., you’ll have to risk menu disappointment – a lot of Mi Xiang Yuan’s dishes sell out during lunch. On the other hand, you might be treated to an impromptu wonton wrapping demonstration as the chefs prep for dinner.