Editor’s note: We’re sorry to report that A Da Cong You Bing has closed.
In China, where queuing isn’t part of the culture, a long line of hungry diners patiently waiting for their food is just about the highest compliment a restaurant can receive. By those standards, Mr. Wu’s scallion oil pancakes are, hands down, one of the most sought-after breakfast treats in Shanghai.
The line that stretches out his kitchen’s back door and wraps around the street corner means that fans of his savory pancakes can wait for hours, gulping in the scallion-scented air as they look forward to their chance to sink their teeth into the real thing.
Scallion oil pancakes (葱油饼, cōngyóubǐng) are a common breakfast treat in Shanghai, but when Mr. Wu makes them, the little savory rounds stuffed with salty pork and scallions become an art form. He is the only street food vendor in town who commands such a following, and the credit undoubtedly goes to his refusal to cut corners or skimp on quality. Mr. Wu is old-school: he gets up at 5 a.m. every morning and starts mixing his dough before the sun rises, steeling himself for his ravenous customers, who arrive in hordes for his made-to-order pancakes. Huddling over a scalding griddle for up to nine hours a day is no easy task, especially for a man who was born with a crippling disability that left him a hunchback. But rain or shine, Mr. Wu single-handedly churns out the best scallion oil pancakes in the city six days a week (Wednesdays are his day of rest), using a process he’s perfected over the past 30 years.
He first rolls out each ball of dough, adding a slick of bright yellow lard followed by a fistful of green onions and a sprinkle of pork, then balls them all up again and throws them on his makeshift grill, a 40-gallon barrel fitted with a griddle that slides open to reveal kerosene-fueled flames. The balls of dough sizzle, spitting melted pork fat and vegetable oil, before Mr. Wu smashes them into flattened pancakes with an iron – and sometimes his bare hands. He flips them over, rotating them in and out of the grill’s hot center to make sure each is browned to perfection before rolling back the griddle and arranging them on a ledge inside the barrel where the exterior is licked by flames to its crispy conclusion.
Each batch takes almost 20 minutes from start to finish. The resulting product crunches on the outside, hardened by the flames and frying time, then gives way to a gooey center bursting with the flavor of the green onion and pork. In one bite, your wait – no matter how long – is forgotten, forgiven, even appreciated.