When it comes to eating spicy food, there are two schools of thought in China. There is the school who thinks it’s almost sinful and creates an imbalance of ‘heat’ in the body, with knock-on effects such as hotheadedness and la duzi. Then there is the other school, from Sichuan, Guizhou, Hunan and Jiangxi, who believe spicy food is necessary for health, bolstering the body’s life force and driving out ‘damp.’
Unfortunately for committed spice lovers, Shanghai is clearly in the first camp; most ‘Sichuan’ restaurants here have all the heat of McDonald’s Szechuan McNugget Sauce. So, I set out on an exploratory mission to find heat in Shanghai. Here in ascending order of spice, are the results.
Spice level: 5/10
Price level: 250-300rmb per person
Bougie, beautiful, and with a degree of swank, newly opened Gaden reminds me of a cheaper, Sichuan version of Hakkasan. Curiosity regarding their lobster mapo tofu was a draw. It’s not spicy nor particularly necessary. Gaden makes up for that with properly hot shredded rabbit with dried chilies, juicy Sichuan peppercorn flavored beef pastries (香煎牛肉饼), dandan mian and 300rmb bottles of pretty drinkable wine. Come 9pm the lights turn down and a DJ steps up. I’ve been back a couple times for pre-gaming dinners and birthdays.
Spice level: 5.5/10
Price level: 210rmb per person
Well-rounded and well-priced, Spice Up served one of the best mapo tofus during this tour thanks to its generous pinch of Sichuan pepper topping and deeply-flavored douban jiang (豆瓣酱, spicy broad bean paste) sauce – the backbone of any decent rendition of this dish. Their riff on koushui ji (口水鸡, spicy poached chicken with sesame oil) with green chilies and fresh Sichuan peppercorns was less spicy than it looked, as was the sweet and spicy sauce on the deep-fried pork-stuffed lotus root fritters. The spice level here is a low, slow burn, suitable for first-timers. English menus and nice interiors make it an easy weeknight choice.
Xu Ye Chili Fish Head
Spice level: 5.5
Price level: 130rmb per person
The backstory here is a collaboration with chef Xu Juyun (许菊云) from Changsha, who sold his prize-winning fish head recipe to a local Shanghai businessman, thus birthing the chain Xu Ye Chili Fish Head.
The fish heads in question are steamed big-head carp, with enough meat on them to feed a table of three. Despite intimidating appearances, the dish has only a mild heat from the salted duo la jiao (剁辣椒) peppers, gentle enough to be eaten whole, along with the black bean, scallion and garlic sauce that make this dish so satisfying.
Despite not having English menus, non-Chinese speakers will have little problem ordering here: the various fish head offerings are rendered in startlingly realistic plastic at a counter near the entrance.
Tai’er Suan Cai Yu
Spice level: 6/10
Price level: 100rmb per person
For some, ma (麻), the numbing sensation from Sichuan peppercorns, is the greater appeal than spice alone. And when the need for ma hits, suan cai yu (酸菜鱼), or poached fish in a pickled winter green broth, really hits the spot. Served whole, the sour pickles and reverberations from Sichuan peppercorn are surprisingly harmonious next to the mild, buttery fish. Request sweet potato noodles (红薯粉) underneath as an added bonus.
Huangmen Lao Zao
Spice level: 6.5/10
Price level: 150rmb per person
Those ready to step their hotpot up a gear may head to Huangmen Lao Zao a bustling Chongqing-style restaurant with towers of beer and patrons in various states of inebriety. The ‘extra spicy’ soup base wasn’t as hot as I had hoped, though I had to admit it was more flavorsome than your average spicy hotpot, and there is an option to add more chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. If you can handle a little heat, order the ‘spicy beef rolls’ (辣牛肉), coated in chili flakes and with a furiously hot pickled chili tucked inside.
Ben Zhen Sichuan Cuisine
Spice level: 6.5/10
Price level: 120rmb per person
Dependable Ben Zhen serves big portions of medium-spicy food at reasonable prices. Offal and rabbit are the most popular menu items, but laowais like me go for a greatest hits of Sichuan food including suanni bai rou (rolls of poached pork loin and cucumber in chili garlic sauce, 蒜泥白肉), mapo tofu, chili oil chaoshou wontons (红油抄手), and a surprisingly hot ginger chili shrimp.
Particular standouts are the generously meaty lazi ji (fried chicken in dried chilies, 辣子鸡), and Yibin ranmian (宜宾燃面), dry noodles dressed with an utterly addicting combination of peanuts, scallions, Sichuan pepper and chili oil, a specialty of the city of Yibin.
Spice level: 7/10
Price level: 50rmb per person
My favorite discovery, Lao Ma is a real unicorn of a Shanghai restaurant. It’s run by a family of Chengdu natives, who branded it as a ‘Chongqing Xiaomian’ (noodle and snack shop) to appeal to the apparently numerous Chongqing people living in the area.
Despite this, the menu is all Chengdu, and Lao Ma a real person — a smiling five-foot grandma who supervises her daughter and daughter-in-law in the serving of handmade hongyou chaoshou wontons (红油抄手), proper tianshui mian (udon-like noodles in a zingy spicy and sweet sauce 甜水面), fantastic zajiang mian (noodles in spicy pork and bean sauce 杂酱面), and her signature huiguo rou (stir-fried pork with cabbage, leeks and peppers回锅肉).
Those in need of serious spice look to the niu you huoguo fen (牛油火锅粉) – thick, chewy ribbons of sweet potato noodles in fearsomely spicy beef-infused hotpot oil sauce. Inhaling it is like receiving a breath of wind from hell, and realizing that it might not be all so bad down there.
Situated on Daxue Lu up in Yangpu District, Lao Ma is a good 20-minute subway ride from downtown. Nevertheless, it’s worth a special journey, and the area itself is full of nice cafes and shops – enough to warrant a weekend afternoon.
Kingdom of Pain
Da Long Yi
Spice level: 8/10
Price level: 150rmb per person
Truly the spiciest hot pot that I found, Da Long Yi is a playground for spice masochists. The broth literally resembles a lake of bubbling lava. A proliferation of chili oil and numbing Sichuan pepper infuses into whatever goes into it, coating the insides of your mouth with inescapable heat. Just one slice of their chili flake coated beef (麻辣牛肉) made me seriously doubt my resolve to finish this article.
Bowls of sweet, icy bingfen (冰粉, grass jelly) are offered during the meal, since they’re the only thing capable of cooling the fire. Order a yuanyang-style pot (half spicy, half mild, 鸳鸯) unless truly confident in your spice-eating capacity.
Qi Yue Fen
Spice level: 9/10
Price level: 30rmb per person
With a specialty dish that translates to ‘perversely spicy mixed noodles’ (变态辣拌粉), it was not without trepidation that I set upon this Jiangxi-style noodle shop up in the university district, just a few doors down from Lao Ma.
I’ve been to Jiangxi, and know their love of adding chopped chilies into dishes. But there was nothing like this.
A bowl of rice noodles, the top completely covered a thick layer of 90% chopped chilies, scallions and minced pork. Once mixed with the delicate strands of noodle underneath, the flavor becomes one of pure, almost unadulterated capsicum. At first I tried to eat only the noodles, but the trouble is the chilies actually taste good. Deranged though it sounds, once you start eating them, you kind of can’t stop.
At a neighboring table, two Jiangxi students with tears streaming down their faces told me they’ve never had anything like this in their home province. This bowl made me its bitch until I could take no more, and I knew that I had found Shanghai’s spiciest dish.
See more Sichuan and Hunan restaurants in Shanghai in the SmartShanghai directory.
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