junk food: pizza, popcorn, burgers

Somehow I always get around to posting about food. Given my job in the art industry, one would expect me to post non-stop about art, artists, art exhibitions, and the like, but … you know what? Since I spend so much of my time at work around art (and especially around bad soul-sucking art and pretentiously snobby art people), I prefer to find comfort in food (like the good ol’ American I am) and especially in good ol’ American junk food, id est, pizza, popcorn, and burgers.

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1. Margherita, Marco Polo, and Meatlover’s Pizzas from Una’s Pizza

I love pizza. I always knew that the type of pizza I grew up with wasn’t ‘real’ Italian, but I never realized how ‘fake’ the pizza I know and love really is until I came to Shanghai. Kinda random, right? Regardless, there are plenty of places to get fake-style pizza in Shanghai, and Una’s is one of them. To be completely honest, I don’t actually like Una’s Pizza. Their thin-crust style is decent yet sub-par and their toppings leave much to be desired, but the taste is alright and the price is acceptable. I much prefer Pizza Street, but their website ordering system is down so I’ve been exploring my options, and while Domino’s Pizza is okay-ing-ly chewy, it’s nowhere near as good as in the States.

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2. Act II Microwavable Butter Popcorn

28 RMB for three bags of popcorn? That equates to about $1.50 per bag of popcorn and normally my cheap self would be completely against such an obvious laowai-gouging price, but you know what? Heck, yes! I didn’t realize until I saw that box of popcorn on the shelf of that small little stall on Changde Road that it has been years since I last consumed buttery popped corn goodness. I even used to own a popcorn machine back in New York that saved me a ton of money. But alas, microwaves in China do not have a standard Popcorn button so most of my popcorn turned out a bit burnt. Eh, whatevs. Popcorn (even burnt) is still a pretty satisfying snack while working.

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3. Burger King Steakhouse Burger

I’m generally a creature of habit. If I’m at Burger King, I get a Whopper. If I’m hungry, I’ll add a side of large fries. It really is that simple. But for some reason, after a long day at work at which I got off around 9 PM, I decided to throw caution to the wind and order a Steakhouse Burger. No idea why. Unfortunately, the picture on the menu never lives up to expectations. The expected fried onions were barely detectable and the meat was kinda weird and the bun was kinda weird and the sauce was kinda weird. It was just … off. And 38 RMB compared to the normal Whopper’s 21? I should’ve stuck with my usual. But oh well, I was adventurous (if only a little bit).

And you know what? The longer I stay in China, the more American I feel and the more I miss the States. As in, only in seeing the differences do I realize how completely American I really am – in the way I talk, the way I act, the things that I like, the things that I value. Sometimes even simple things like my preferences for food really put things into perspective. I’ve been in Shanghai for almost two years now and as much as I like and appreciate Shanghai for its potential and as much as I’ve grown personally and professionally since moving here, there really is no place like home. And I really do miss the food.

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grilled cheese for the win

There’s a new restaurant in town and it is beyond amazing. Right next door to CinnaSwirl and actually sharing the same address is Co. Cheese, another sign that Americans are taking over this city. But instead of that being an apocalyptic statement, it’s a glorious one (although maybe not for the traditionalists). Co. Cheese is a sign that not all Americans are English teachers, we don’t eat McDonald’s all the time, and lowbrow food can be darn good food.

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Co. Cheese is a grilled cheese restaurant. Oh yes. But it’s not just cheese, bread, and butter; it’s got options. Back when I was in New York, there was the whole gourmet simple food thing going on, like specialty hot dogs, fancy mac and cheese, et cetera. In a city like New York, known for both the best pizza on the planet and dollar cheese slices, it made perfect sense and I didn’t think that much of it. In Shanghai, where it’s a struggle to find decent comfort food, and where you’re usually stuck deciding between the fancy schmancy restaurant with food flown in straight from France (with its associated prices) or the somewhat sketchy place on the corner with its ten-kuai noodles in a plastic-lined bowl, a proper grilled cheese sandwich is like ambrosia not meant for mere mortals.

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At first the thought of a grilled cheese restaurant was like “those crazy expats,” but upon first bite of a brie, avocado, ham, pear, and arugula grilled cheese sandwich from Co. Cheese, I was in heaven. And instantly I felt three times more American, remembering all those grilled cheese sandwiches I used to make with Colby-Jack on sliced sourdough bread. Let’s face it, as simple as the grilled cheese sandwich is, there are probably a million ways to make one: In a toaster oven, on the stove, with an iron? Kraft Singles, a mix of cheeses, shredded or sliced? White bread, whole wheat, sourdough? Which sides get buttered? Any toppings or tomato soup to dip it in?

There’s just something so great and democratic about a grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese sandwiches are for everyone, and everyone loves ’em. Co. Cheese steps things up a notch by offering a wide range (I need to try the mac and cheese one next) so it’s beyond the standard grilled cheese that I could make at home. But even if it were just cheese, bread, and butter, being that this is Shanghai, where you have to go to specialty or import shops for good cheese and bread, Co. Cheese is greatly appreciated and fills a niche. It’s simple lowbrow food, but it’s so darn American, so darn appreciated, and so darn good.

Co. Cheese Melt Bar
32 East Yuyuan Road
Jing’an District, Shanghai

cinnamon rolls, oh my, oh yes

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The world is a much better place with cinnamon rolls. Yep. Most definitely. A cinnamon roll bakery opened up not too long ago not too far from me, and oh my gracious goodness it’s amazing. Oh wow. Oh yes. I’ve always loved cinnamon rolls, but they are incredibly frustrating to eat. There is absolutely no way to look sophisticated eating one and you definitely need some wet wipes on the ready to clean your sticky hands. That being said, when faced with the prospect of eating a gooey cinnamon roll, who cares about sticky fingers?

CinnaSwirl is a bit pricey, but alas, such is the Shanghai condition. The high price is probably a good thing anyway, because too many cinnamon rolls is definitely not good for the cholesterol level. Oh, and not only do they have a small little storefront, but they also deliver! Woah.

CinnaSwirl
cinnaswirlchina.com
32 East Yuyuan Road
Jing’an District, Shanghai

munching on munchies

Because sometimes you just need a hamburger. And crinkle fries. Especially when there’s free delivery. And if that craving happens about once a week, what’s the big deal?

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Oh yes. I don’t understand why people think burgers are oh so unhealthy. What’s in a burger? Bread, meat, vegetable, fruit (the tomato), and dairy. Right there you have your five major food groups. Granted there’s not much nutritional value in the accompanying fries, but they’re good for the soul, so they’re a-okay in my book.

Five years ago when I first arrived in Shanghai, I heard about this hamburger place called Munchies, which was opened by an American, so I gave it a try and promptly fell in love. A lot of the burger joints in Shanghai are the gourmet kind, but Munchies is more of a normal burger place: good service, good food, and decent prices. The food isn’t write-home-about, but it’s solid. Now Munchies has two locations, although I’ve only been to the one. And I will keep going, because it’s good eatin’.

Munchies
munchies.cn
974 Wuding Road
Jing’an District, Shanghai
+86 4008 008 420

fire in shanghai

Apparently this evening my building was on fire. One person, an elderly man, died. Details are scarce at this point.

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I usually make the trek home on autopilot, so I didn’t notice anything was amiss until I was turning into my complex and ran into police tape. And that’s when I noticed all the policemen, firemen, a firetruck, and a crowd of people milling around my complex entrance. The fire was out, but they were still cleaning up. The policemen lifted the tape because I said I lived there, and then I had to cross a shallow sea of foam, water, and glass shards to get to my building. Huh. More police stationed at the building entrance. I go in after they mention something about how I should have used the back entrance, and in the lobby (which connects two buildings), I turn towards my elevator bay and am confronted by another crowd of people, some in pajamas, some in uniform. Crap. It was my building that was on fire.

The main security guard recognized me, so I was let through after he wrote down my floor number. And then … water. So much water. Only about a centimeter or two deep, but it was just everywhere. No elevator too, so I had to climb A LOT of stairs. And the stairwell was covered in water. Splosh. Splosh. Splosh.

Apparently the fire was on the top floor of the building. My floor and apartment were fine with no damage whatsoever. Electricity works, but a policeman just stopped by to inform me that there is no gas (id est, no hot shower), though it should be restored in the morning. No word on when the elevators will be online again. I saw some pictures of the fire and it’s crazy to think that just a few hours ago that was my building, my home. That someone died not too far above me. And yet I’m here in my apartment watching TV, typing on my laptop, eating leftover pizza, and curled up in a blanket like any other night.

A few years ago there was another apartment fire, also in this neighborhood. That fire was far, far bigger, destroying the entire building and leaving 58 dead, but still. Put simply, fire safety (or the lack of) and the shoddy construction of buildings in this country terrifies me.

the (once vibrant) jing’an villa

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Jing’an Villa is a historic lilong (or nongtang) neighborhood in Shanghai, accessed from West Nanjing Road and Weihai Road. And apparently I am truly a horrible, horrible architect because I had no idea this place existed, let alone off a street I walk down frequently. I mean seriously, I’ve passed the entry gate a zillion times and was never even curious as to what was behind it.  Apparently this place used to be a pretty bustling little artsy place, sort of what Xintiandi and Tianzifang started as, that ideal mixture of historic charm, hip shops, and cafés. And all that is no more. Apparently a lot of the shops were illegally constructed or being run illegally so the local government had everything torn down last year. And I never got to see it! Sad.

It’s still interesting as an example of historic architecture, but it’s sad that kind of ‘young’ life is no longer there. Yes, architecture is part of one’s cultural heritage and it should be protected and laws should be followed. But to what degree? Is keeping it pristine and off-limits the best way? Putting something in a museum is great to make sure it’s protected, but it also removes it from the present, from the people, from the living culture. It sticks it behind a pane of glass and says: Don’t touch. This belongs to the past, not to you. I think there are too many HPers (historic preservationists) who treat architecture like some fragile artifact. In general, architecture is part of a community. It’s not an art object, it’s a functional habitat/shelter/home and should be allowed to adapt and evolve with society (within reason of course). The best way to encourage appreciation for heritage is to integrate it into your life, not segregate it out of fear. The question is where to strike that balance … because as we all know from Xintiandi and Tianzifang, too much money and hype easily squeeze out all the culture.

night lights from the overpass

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Architecturally speaking, sites of government and worship are often placed on higher elevations (atop hills) because of our societal connotations of height with power and oversight. This picture looks south from the pedestrian overpass that crosses Yan’an Road, which is a major road that runs east-west through basically all of Shanghai. I love walking on it because, a) it’s the easiest way to cross into Xuhui, b) it offers a nice view, c) I love when cities consider pedestrian circulation, and d) it’s a weird power trip to walk over the cars below. Especially when the weather’s nice and the lights aren’t murked out by hazy skies.

Shanghai at night is quite peaceful, because unlike cities like New York, Shanghai closes pretty early with most restaurants closing around 9 and the subway done by 11ish. The main exceptions would be the Bund area and the former French Concession. For all intents and purposes, Yan’an Road can be considered the dividing line between the more business and residential Jing’an to the north and expat- and restaurant-heavy Xuhui to the south (part of Jing’an is south of Yan’an … but whatever). This follows the historical lines between the International Settlement of which Jing’an is a part and the French Concession, now part of Xuhui. I’m completely oversimplifying this, but let’s just say that I’ve crossed this overpass many times and often at night – either on my way to dinner or on my way back.

old navy, meet china. shanghai, play nice.

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As I mentioned yesterday, Old Navy has opened in China! March 1st was the grand opening, and since it’s located near the Jing’an Temple subway station (at the corner of West Nanjing Road and Wanhangdu/Huashan Road), I stopped by after work. There’s some promotional material out there hyping it as being on the “famous West Nanjing Road,” which is technically true … but it’s a bit of a trek from the main shopping area. I suspect they were afraid it wouldn’t be able to compete with the Uniqlo, H&M, et cetera that’re over there. It was weird seeing such hoopla over Old Navy considering it’s a very basic place in my mind, but since it’s their first store in China, it is a pretty big deal.

The prices, quality, and styles seemed on par with in the States (id est, so-so on all counts), but it did seem as though the focus was more on dressier casual, like floral blouses and graphic prints rather than plain t-shirts. I guess if a Chinese person wanted a plain t-shirt, he/she would probably opt for Uniqlo, which is a Japanese brand that already has an established presence in China and offers decidedly better quality than Old Navy. I find many of Uniqlo’s cuts to be annoyingly conservative, like suffocating high necklines, awkwardly-long skirts, and sweaters that make everyone look square, so I was really excited for Old Navy and the familiarity of its stuff. I went hoping to pick up some simple spaghetti-strap tank tops, but THEY WERE NOWHERE TO BE FOUND. Huh? So not the Old Navy I’m used to. Also, no sale section (which is where I usually found the best deals), but I’m sure one will materialize as time goes on.

The store was nicely done, which is understandable given it’s the first adventure into the China market, but I found the layout unintuitive. Separated into three levels, the space was partitioned oddly, to the point that I got turned around a few times, had my path blocked by a display table, and almost walked into a mirror! Old Navy’s flagship in New York was also multiple levels, but far easier to navigate. It was quite crowded, so perhaps that was partially to blame, but the simple/open layout of most stateside Old Navy stores is nowhere to be found. The one thing that really struck me was: Old Navy is from San Francisco? Really? Of course I knew Old Navy was an American brand, but seeing the giant Old Navy sign with “San Francisco, California” underneath was like hm … I guess being American is a real selling point in China. And if you didn’t guess it was an American store by the sign out front, all the logo t-shirts, bags, et cetera with “San Francisco” or “New York” scrawled across ’em would surely clue you in.

Old Navy
1728 West Nanjing Road, Jing’an District, Shanghai

jing’an temple – finally

Yes, I just posted yesterday. But today was rather special, so I thought I’d go ahead and post again. This morning I received some clothes I had ordered online and was pretty happy with it all. For lunch, I went to Yang’s Fry Dumplings and had their shengjianbao. Yum. Didn’t take any pictures though because I was with a friend and I thought it would’ve been rude. Anyway … afterwards I went to the Jing’an Temple. I FINALLY WENT! The temple is right next to the metro station, the one I go to at least twice a week, and is less than ten minutes from where I live, but this is the first time I’ve stepped foot in the temple. I can’t believe it took me a year to see it. It was nice … like all the other temples in China.

Why was this day special? Because I got to cross two things off my Shanghai bucket list! The restaurant and temple had been on it for the longest time. The picture below is from the Jing’an Temple. The area around the temple is very modern, like the mall in the picture’s background. The colors didn’t come out too good because of the lighting, so I just stripped the image of color and added some sepia. Not something I’d normally do, but hey, today’s special, remember?

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