In Shanghai, there’s a time and a place for taking part in the city’s rough-and-tumble street food scene, but sometimes you want to eat out knowing that your bowl of noodles will not accidentally become someone’s ashtray or that you don’t have to elbow an elderly lady out of the way for a seat. Somewhere between the dive noodle stalls and the elegant confines of the city’s upscale banquet-style restaurants lies the holy grail of eating authentically: affordable local cuisine in a non-smoking, no grime, no-nonsense environment – with painted walls to boot! Meet the popular Shanghainese restaurant Jian Guo 328.
Developed over just the past 400 years, Shanghainese cuisine (本帮菜, běn bāng cài) is actually considered the youngest of the major cuisines in China. Owing to Shanghai’s historical status as a major port city, its food culture – essentially a variation on Huaiyang cuisine, a culinary tradition that originated in the area between the Yangtze and Huai rivers – gradually incorporated characteristics and cooking methods from the surrounding areas and abroad into its unique flavor profile. The constant flow of goods in Shanghai through the ages has also meant a long history of foreigners making the city their home. So it should come as no surprise that it’s a restaurateur from Taiwan who opened Jian Guo 328.
Most diners at this small, yet not cramped, neighborhood joint start off with an order of yellow croaker spring rolls. Stuffed with chopped greens, glass noodles and bits of the flaky fish found in every wet market around town, they’re a perfect primer for a tour de force of local cuisine. Keep in mind that the soft flexible bones are edible; the chef manages to get most of them out of the fish, but you’ll always run across a few.
For a classic dish exemplifying the local penchant for sweet and rather oily dishes, don’t miss the red-braised pork (红烧肉, hóngshāoròu). Found on every Shanghainese restaurant’s menu, the dish features slow-braised chunks of fatty pork served in a clay pot with a thick, sweet, soy-based sauce that gives the pork a deep crimson color. Jian Guo 328’s version isn’t as melt-in-your-mouth as some more upscale renditions we’ve had, but the Shaoxing rice wine and star anise-infused sauce is on par with the big boys, and you’ll be scooping spoonfuls over your white rice with abandon. Even if you aren’t generally one to feast on fatty pork belly, the tofu skin knots and boiled quail eggs provide a nice complement to the mouthfuls of pure fat.
The scallion oil mixed noodles (葱油拌面, cōng yóu bàn miàn), another ubiquitous Shanghainese dish, are done especially well here. The bowl of springy wheat noodles tossed simply with caramelized scallions comes off flavorful but not overly greasy the way its streetside counterparts often taste. A few pieces of shrimp resting delicately atop the noodles are a testament to the emphasis placed in Shanghainese cuisine – and that of China’s Eastern seaboard more generally – on seafood. We’re also fond of the sesame peanut noodles (麻酱面, májiàng miàn), which aren’t as fiery hot as some regional versions, in keeping with the local preference for more mellow and delicate flavors. The fried pork noodles (炸酱面, zhá jiàng miàn), which come topped with bits of pork mixed with preserved black bean paste and chilies, are another of the more flavorful and memorable dishes on offer.
As one of the few local-cuisine restaurants to feature a non-smoking policy (and actually stick to it), Jian Guo 328 embraces a more general concern towards food safety and health as well. The restaurant makes special note of its use of filtered water and high-quality cooking oils and of its policy against using MSG. The rather extensive wine list is another uncommon, but welcome, touch. Sometimes it truly takes an outsider’s eye (and taste buds) to improve on local traditions.