By Hart Hagerty
Updated: January 20, 2017
Sean V./Courtesy of Mia's

One of the greatest joys of living in China is the array of absolutely delicious, cheap eats. From fiery Sichuan dishes of the southwest to delectable Dongbei dumplings of the north, inexpensive, culinary delights from every corner of the Middle Kingdom are ready for the taking in Shanghai. Given the sheer abundance of affordable, amazing eats, the tall order of selecting the five best gave me stomach ulcers. If I had it my way, I’d get to choose a Top 20 list, including Zhue Que Men, famous for its roujia mo (the “Xi’An hamburger” made from fatty pork marinated in a secret recipe with a hint of cinnamon). I’d also give a shout out to the tribal Yunnan cuisine of exotic Lotus Eatery. If you’re the sort of traveler who wants to take an even bigger bite out of Shanghai’s culinary scene, I suggest hooking up with UnTour, a small company that hosts unconventional eating tours around the city’s the night markets and hidden dumpling joints.

Di Shui Dong

With two locations in the heart of the city, Di Shui Dong is a longtime favorite for Shanghai locals and expats. It’s not exactly known for its polished service or décor; in fact, the ambience here is slightly seedy. But the delicious Hunan-style dishes and domestic beers, sold for dirt-cheap prices, more than make up for that. Perennially packed and cheerful, Di Shui Dong is ideal for fun group dinners on weekends.

Dongbei Four Seasons Dumpling King

Four Seasons devotes itself to the hearty staple of the northern (Dongbei) diet: big, rustic dumplings. In the modestly decorated restaurant, cheerful servers deliver steaming, heaping plates of plump dumplings alongside other straightforward dishes like di san xian, a filling stir-fry of potatoes, peppers and eggplant. House specialties include pork and cabbage dumplings (baicai rouxian) or beef dumplings (niurouxian).

Lamian

Originating in Lanzhou province, the local dish known as lamian (meaning “pulled noodle”) is a generous serving of noodles in a giant bowl of fragrant beef broth. Lanzhou Lamian joints are all over the city, and can be immediately recognized by the common sight of a young male cook pulling fresh noodles and dropping them into a huge boiling pot outside on the sidewalk. At these predominantly Muslim mom-and-pop shops, each serving is hand-made to order in front of your eyes, guaranteeing a fresh meal (and a bit of a show, too). 

Cha’s

This retro-style, greasy-spoon Hong Kong diner is always jam-packed with young locals, who patiently wait an hour so they can split a table with strangers. Well worth the wait, Cha’s serves Shanghai’s most authentic Cantonese comfort food and diner-style sandwiches. In between lunch and dinner, the kitchen churns out milk teas and freshly made sweets like pineapple buns.  

Mia’s Yunnan Kitchen

When it comes to cheap Chinese eats, Mia’s offers many fresher, healthier alternative to heavy dumplings and noodles.  Quaint and inexpensive, the restaurant serves exotic dishes that represent several minority populations in the southwestern Yunnan province—including The mint-infused salads, tofu with chives, wild mushrooms, salty cured ham and grilled goat cheese. The décor is rustic and comfortable, with hardwood floors, wooden tables and embroidered pillows. 

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