In the same way Americans swirl madly around food fads (Atkins, South Beach, etc.), Chinese tend to go crazy over specific food items—and often over a specific food item as prepared by a specific food provider. It has to be said, “The People” do not always know what they’re talking about. There’s a yogurt stand in an alley not far from my home in Beijing that every weekend attracts lines to rival the TSA back-up at JFK Airport on Christmas Eve. Why, I have no idea. I have tasted that yogurt and it’s not as good as the yogurt at a perpetually empty stand twenty feet to the south.
But sometimes they do know what they’re talking about. The restaurant that appears in this video, Xiaoyang Shengjian (小杨生煎), is a case in point.
Xiaoyang is widely regarded as Shanghai’s best producer of shengjian baozi (生煎包子)—a half-fried, half-steamed pork bun that arguably ranks third behind only bacon and prosciutto as an expression of the beauty of pork. Having missed on out them the last time I was in Shanghai, I was eager this time not only to gorge on the buns, but to gorge on the best iteration available. An Internet search revealed Xiaoyang to be the consensus destination. But with the yogurt shop in mind, my inclination was to look elsewhere. I wanted a transcendent bun, not a bun any sucker on the street might eat.
In the end, Xiaoyang prevailed on convenience, being just around the corner from the hotel. The branch I visited (there are several Shengjians spread throughout the city) did not look promising: Jammed in next to an anonymous noodle shop at the back of a mall food court on the heavily touristed Nanjing East Road pedestrian street. None of the remote, hole-in-the-wall charm one usually associates with world-class Chinese snack shops. No charm at all, in fact.
But line was long, which is always a good sign. And the the baozi at the end of it: my God. Perfectly crispy and golden on the bottom, tender on top, cradling a gorgeous nugget of just-firm-enough ground pork in a bath of salty, scalding-hot broth. They were, to borrow a phrase from a foodie friend in San Francisco, like crack. And nearly as cheap: If memory serves, it was a whopping $3 for a quadruple order (16).
Are they the best available? Not being resident in Shanghai, I’m be hesitant to say. But of the six or seven versions I’ve tried over the years, no others come close. Hence the video.
Sometimes, it pays to study the masses.