The relative abundance of heritage architecture and mixed zoning in the former French Concession neighborhood (technically the Xuhui district) has left a legacy of nooks and crannies where a number of mom-and-pop noodle shops are able to withstand the test of time and pressures of a fast-changing economy. Luckily, enough noodle lovers are still craving the classics and will queue up to support their favorite local haunts. Our top five picks can get crowded, but if you avoid the main lunch rush from noon to 1 p.m., you shouldn’t have to fight (too hard) for a seat.
Wei Xiang Zhai (味香斋)
Not for the claustrophobic or timid, this wildly popular noodle house demands that you elbow your way to a table for your chance to slurp down a bowl of the city’s best sesame paste noodles (麻酱面 májiàng miàn). To order, make your way to the counter and point to the table of pretty much anyone who has managed to snag a seat and is slurping away at an outrageously photogenic dish of sesame noodles. And while they’re pretty as a picture, it’s all about beauty and substance, as the chile oil, sesame paste and scallions come together for a mind-blowing holy trinity of sweet, spicy and savory perfection. Don’t forget to top with a dash of vinegar and mix thoroughly while they’re still hot.
Ding Te Le (顶特勒)
For a Chinese city as fast-paced and increasingly cosmopolitan as Shanghai, there are surprisingly few late-night dining options. This cozy noodle shop is tucked in a small alley off one of Shanghai’s busiest shopping streets. Reminiscent of the city’s fading longtang (alleyway) cuisine, Ding Te Le’s home-style offerings are Shanghainese comfort food at their finest, with steaming bowls of noodles and deep-fried cuts of meat just waiting for diners at any hour of the day.
The bái zhī cōng yóu ròu sī bàn miàn (白汁葱油肉丝拌面) is a challenging mouthful to say, translating clumsily as “white juice scallion oil shredded meat mixed noodles,” but is one delicious mouthful to eat. Deeply caramelized green onions mingle with slivers of pork atop a bed of springy noodles, and a milky bowl of pork bone broth on the side is on hand for a rich chaser between noodle slurps. For a uniformly mouth-watering experience, mix the noodles with the scallion oil that collects at the bottom of the deep bowl until each strand shimmers, but don’t let the caramelized onions disappear beneath the mound of noodles – they’re the best part.
Lulu Mian Dian (陆路面点)
While still firmly in the hole-in-the-wall category, Lulu’s has small amenities like air conditioning and an automatic sliding door that, don’t worry, haven’t affected prices too much. Just about everything can be put over rice instead of noodles, but we love the noodles here a bit more thanks to their perfect al dente texture (or QQ, if you’re down with the Taiwanese lingo). You can make endless combinations, but for us a bowl of sliced fresh bamboo mixed with pickled vegetables (broth on the side) and slivers of fried pork hits the spot. You’ll be sharing tables with strangers here, as the tight quarters necessitate quick turnover and an accommodating attitude. Don’t skip out on the deep-fried pork cutlet drizzled with Shanghai Worcestershire sauce (辣酱油), and they’ve also got some killer vegetarian and wonton options.
A Niang Mian (阿娘面)
Ningbo-style noodles are a necessity for anyone looking to explore the wide world of seafood noodle dishes. During hairy crab season (late fall-early winter), the crab roe noodles in soup are a must-order, but their yellow croaker noodles are good year round. Both dishes are served in a delicate broth made from the fish’s spine – a recipe that has been passed down through several generations and is good to the last drop. Finding a stool during peak mealtimes can be a bit of a hover and wait game, and the cafeteria style seating means you’ll knock elbows with your neighbors, but everyone is understanding and focused on the food. The mural on the back wall instructs you to “Eat Granny’s noodles until your mouth cramps from happiness,” which is excellent advice.
Tianfu Mian Zhuang (天府面庄)
This tiny corner noodle shop is as heavenly as its Chinese name suggests (Tianfu means “Land of Plenty” or “Heavenly Province” and is an epithet used to describe the Sichuan province). Like many popular spots, it pays to go just before or after the main lunch rush, as the tiny spot only has four small tables (more seating is sporadically available outside based on the moods of the local chengguan guards and the weather). We’d recommend one of two dishes: If you’re feeling adventurous, go for the Sichuan intestine noodles (麻辣肥肠面Málà féicháng miàn). The generous peppercorn spice mixture balances out the classic offal aromas and is especially popular with locals. If you’re off the offal, try the hongwei zhajiang noodles (红味炸酱面), for a savory and delicious dry minced pork noodle with an enticing blend of Sichuan spices. Go for the large option and you may have enough for a second meal at home. You can also get a side of authentic Sichuan pickles to top off any bowl of noodles or handmade dumplings.
This article was originally published on September 17, 2018.