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On the diner intimidation scale, Shanghai’s Chenghuang Miao Tese Xiaochi – which can be loosely translated as “City God Temple Snack Shop” – ranks pretty high, with aggressive lunchtime crowds and nothing but Chinese character-laden menus for guidance. But the payoff, a baptism by fire in authentic Chinese eating, is worth it. The hungry masses that congregate here have discovered a simple truth: the food here is quick, tasty and cheap – a gastronaut’s holy trinity.

With several locations around the city, the mini chain’s formula is simple: a huge range of foods on offer in modest surroundings, accompanied by speedy service. In addition to the fried noodles, soups and set lunch menus, Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings and fried dumplings are served all day, starting at 6 a.m. The dining ambiance at this humble eatery is a step up from street food, as there are actual seats and waiters, but it’s not quite on the order of a full-fledged restaurant. As is typical at many cheap joints in Shanghai, you’ll need to order from the all-Chinese menu wall behind the cash register, then jostle for an empty seat. Afterwards, give the receipt to the waitstaff clipped onto a clothespin with your table number written on it.

To ease your way into the scene here, opt for morning dumplings before the office-worker lunch crowd comes. At the Jiashan Lu branch, the chain’s most central location, chefs work stuffing the dumplings for steaming and frying in an open kitchen facing the street. The soup dumplings (小笼包, xiǎolóngbāo) here are in the “Nanxiang style,” in homage to the suburb of Shanghai where the steamed buns were first created. The dumplings are slightly smaller than what you often find around town, but the skins are perfectly delicate and the enclosed broth is savory and delicious. The fried dumplings (生煎包, shēng jiān bāo) are even better, with perfectly golden-brown bottoms and the added dash of yeast resulting in a thicker, more bread-like casing for the savory pork meatball and broth.

Lining the back wall is another kitchen cranking out noodle and stir-fried dishes. Try the málà dòufu rice (麻辣豆腐饭), a slightly sweet Shanghai take on the classic dish from Sichuan province. Silky smooth chunks of soft tofu are sautéed with bits of pork in a crimson soy-based sauce with fermented black beans. Although their version lacks the numbing peppercorns, the dish is still a filling winner.

The other main specialty item is a deep-fried battered pork chop paired with glutinous rice cakes (排骨年糕 , páigǔ niángāo), which are also submerged in oil until crispy. It’s a greasy and filling choice, and there is nary a veggie in sight here, though there is a side of Chinese-style barbecue sauce for dipping. An order of wontons or noodles is ideal for rounding out a meal; choose from the mini pork wontons in soup (鲜肉小馄饨 , xiān ròu xiǎo húntún) or the full-size pork and greens version (菜肉大馄饨 , cài ròu dà húntún). Bobbing in light chicken broth, they can be livened up with the chili sauce and vinegar found on the table.

Set lunch menus are also available for just a few RMB more, and include a slightly smaller version of the main dish, a small soup, rice, sautéed bean sprouts and pickled veggies. Served on metal canteen-style trays, these lunches might take you back to your elementary school days – if you replace the lady reheating frozen foods with a well-oiled team of Chinese chefs. Look for the 套餐 (tàocān, “set meal”) characters at the bottom right for these lunch options. The English-language sign out front may clumsily refer to the venue as a “snack shop,” but don’t be fooled by this – whether ordering the set menu or à la carte, no one leaves here anything but full.

The more we visit, the more comfortable we feel putting this shrine to snack foods into the “greasy spoonchopsticks” category. The low-key environment – combined with delicious, if not particularly healthy, fried dishes – has the crowds, and us, coming back for more.

Can we get an amen?

Here are a few more popular favorites to show the cashier for easy ordering:

辣肉面 – là ròu miàn – spicy pork noodle soup
回锅肉饭 – huíguōròu fàn – twice-fried pork with rice
蟹粉小笼 – xièfěn xiǎo long – crab and pork soup dumplings
三丝春卷 – sān sī chūnjuǎn – fried spring rolls
牛肉炒河粉 – niúròu chǎo hé fěn – fried rice noodles with beef
雪菜辣酱面 – xuě cài làjiàng miàn – preserved veggies and spicy sauce noodles
素鸡蛋面 – sù jīdàn miàn – vegetarian egg noodle soup
炸酱拌面 – zhá jiàng bàn miàn – fried pork noodles
鱼香肉丝套餐 – yú xiāng ròu sī tàocān – fragrant pork in yuxiang sauce lunch set
宫爆鸡丁套餐 – gōng bào jī dīng tàocān – kung pao chicken lunch set
红烧鱼块套餐 – hóngshāo yú kuài tàocān – red-braised fish lunch set

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Jamie Barys and Kyle Long

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