Editor’s note: We’re sorry to report that the vendors and restaurants at Sipalou Lu and Fangbang Lu have suffered the same fate as those on Wujiang Lu and have been shut down. For street food, head to the area around Er Guang.
In the lead-up to the 2010 World Expo, the government tore down one of Shanghai’s most famous food streets, Wujiang Lu, so the city would appear more “civilized” in the eyes of businesspeople and tourists visiting from around the world. Sparkling cookie-cutter international brands replaced family-run hawker stalls, and Wujiang Lu’s fried bun purveyors and stinky tofu vendors were scattered across the city. But its sad fate, which left a gaping hole in the city’s culinary landscape, also created new opportunities, allowing Fangbang Lu to become one of the city’s top food streets.
Generally known as Fangbang Lu food street – although the vast majority of the action is on the intersecting street Sipailou Lu and the alleyways off it – the area is one of the only places left in the city with a huge array of street food joints densely packed into a single strip. These unlicensed vendors are increasingly hemmed in by the steady march of new construction creeping in from all sides, and it’s surprising they’ve managed to hold on for so long. In 2012, a new threat opened just a block away: a branch of Din Tai Fung, the upscale Taiwanese dumpling chain. Thankfully, the food street continues to thrive on the steady influx of hungry locals and domestic tourists visiting nearby Yu Gardens who like their food cheap, and with a side of character.
On Fangbang Lu you’ll find a Shanghai from a different era – without all the pretension and bling that make up the city skyline. Nicknamed “Shanghai Lao Jie,” or Shanghai Old Street, this is an area of town where you can see pajama-clad residents, scruffy strays gnawing on kebab leftovers and electrical wiring resembling a messy bowl of noodles. This isn’t a Singapore-style hawker center that prides itself on order and cleanliness, or one of Beijing’s night markets, such as Wangfujing, where hawkers have turned China’s edible oddities into a foreigner-priced tourist trap. At the intersection of Fangbang Lu and Sipailou Lu, an arched stone gate welcomes you into a small street food bonanza. Although the scene changes regularly based on what’s fresh, the time of day, the weather and so many other variables, here’s the low-down on what you can expect.
Fresh fruit vendors hold down the fort right outside the main gate, but we recommend passing on through and returning to them at the end, to quench your sweet tooth at the end of a meal. In addition to fresh slices of hami melon (哈密瓜, hāmìguā, Xinjiang’s sweeter version of the cantaloupe) and watermelon, there are also candied fruit desserts (冰糖葫芦, bīngtáng húlu) in which everything from kiwis and mandarin oranges to strawberries and hawthorn fruit is packed onto a sticky kebab stick.
Past the fruit there lies perhaps the biggest challenge at the market: the stinky tofu (臭豆腐, chòu dòufu) vendors. Although the deep-fried version releases even more noxious fumes, you won’t miss the pungent aroma of the pan-fried variety here either. Smothered in spicy or Shanghai-style sweet sauce, the flavor overcomes the smell, but for most visitors, this is a culinary battle between the senses that takes some time to conquer. There are two types here, black Hunan-style stinky tofu and the slightly less intense plain white variety. At RMB 5 for a hefty portion, it’s worth trying.
Further down are a handful of shāokǎo (烧烤) stands. These small barbecue grills lay out a variety of skewered meats and veggies for you to pick from. The best part here is the spice mix each vendor applies liberally – a secret blend of cumin, pepper, sesame, paprika, red chili, onion and more – that always has us filling our trays with seconds and thirds. Don’t miss the enoki mushrooms, eggplant, potato slices, lamb, chicken wings and any variety of more challenging meats, including chicken hearts and gizzards.
Behind the street stalls on wheels and their makeshift seating arrangements lie various cheap restaurants serving up regional specialties. Try dipping into a bowl of mouth-numbingly spicy má là tang (麻辣烫) when it’s cold out, or hand-pulled noodles from the Lanzhou lamian (兰州拉面) stall. There’s also a range of home-style restaurants specializing in stir-fry dishes. Order by pointing to plastic-wrapped plates showcasing the whole foods (think unbroken eggs and tomatoes) before they are chopped up and thrown into a wok.
We usually skip the crawfish tables here, as Shouning Lu, the spectacular seafood food street, is just a few blocks away. We do, however, love the cabbage and pork fried dumplings near the front gate. Just a few stalls down, a vendor dishes up deep-fried new potatoes (炸土豆, zhà tǔdòu) out of a shallow wok, spiced up with the shaokao spice mix and worth every clogged artery they incur. Near the end of the street’s hustle and bustle, there are excellent – and equally unhealthy-yet-delicious – fried noodles ( 炒面, chǎomiàn) and rice (炒饭, chǎofàn) to be had for RMB 6 from one of the makeshift pushcarts that pop up around the city in the evenings.
There are easily enough dining options here for a week’s worth of snacking, all in a budget-friendly, noisy and less-than-pristine environment. And that’s just the kind of backstreet eating that suits our fancy.
This review was originally published on April 12, 2013.