Old Jesse vs Jianguo328 – a Shanghainese Cuisine Showdown

By Sophie Steiner, March 1, 2021

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Shanghainese food isn’t at the top of our mind when it comes to China’s most famous cuisines. In fact, there are the Eight Great Regional Cuisines of China, and Shanghainese doesn’t even make the cut. Instead, it sits at the cross section of Jiangsu and Zhejiang regional fare, both of which lend elements – along with Western influence – to this now food-obsessed city. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Shanghainese food exchanges Chengdu’s spice, Guangdong’s fried and steamed snacks and Fujian’s wild mountain ingredients for sweeter, saucy, oil-laden dishes that center on river-based seafood and pork. The resulting amalgamation of cooking styles and culture converge into Shanghai’s distinct haipai cuisine.  

IMG_3847.jpgSaute Shepherd’s Purse with Shredded Beancurd Sheet (RMB48), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

All things considered, Shanghainese cuisine still has some noteworthy dishes, so we pitted two of Shanghai’s most longstanding benbang spots – Old Jesse (老吉士酒家) and Jianguo328 – against each other for the ultimate Shanghainese walk-off. 

First up is Old Jesse (老吉士酒家), a powerhouse in the city’s dining scene that started out as a living room of an old house on Tianping Lu. Nowadays, Old Jesse has expanded into a chain of “New Jesse’s” that pump out Shanghainese classics like a machine, but the OG location is worth the ever-present wait, even if you make a reservation. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Starting with the classics, the Braised Wheat Bean (RMB38), known colloquially as kaofu, is a textbook example of this red-braised cold appetizer. The sponge-like texture of the wheat gluten absorbs the sticky, sweet sauce, and alternating bites of springy wood-ear mushrooms and crunchy peanuts make it a favorite amongst vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Other must-trys include Braised Noodles with Scallion Oil (RMB22) – Old Jesse’s version of the traditional Shanghainese scallion oil noodles that rival the best of the them; Fried Shrimps in Dried Plum Vegetable Oil (RMB108) – the crispiest, most succulent fried river shrimp that pop with tender sweetness as you crunch into every bite; and Braised Pork in Chili Sauce (RMB128) – or hongshaorou – the fattiest, braised pork belly smothered in a delectable glaze of dark soy sauce, ginger, rock sugar and Shaoxing wine. The sauce is thick, gooey and oh-so addicting – just asking to be drizzled on extra rice, noodles or directly down your gullet. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A reservation is even more worth it for snagging the best dishes on offer, like Old Jesse’s pièce de résistance, Braised Fish Head with Scallions (RMB238). This dish must be ordered at least 48 hours in advance, but the monster-size portion of delicate, buttery fish head wrapped in fried scallions is worth planning ahead for. Make sure to bring a crew because the hefty portion could easily satisfy a family of hungry tummies. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

If you happen to stop in during hairy crab season (late summer into mid-autumn) the Crab Meat with Bean Curd (RMB158) is a crime to miss. Whether consumed over tofu, rice or noodles, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars you live close to Yangcheng Lake, the birthplace of the tastiest hairy crabs in the world. 

Homestyle Saute Eel Shreds (RMB98), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Just a little over two kilometers away sits the Shanghai institution, Jianguo328. Little known fact, the founder is Taiwan- rather than Shanghai-born, but that doesn’t stop him from banging out the Shanghai standards in a renao two-floor venue that prides itself on being MSG free and only cooking with filtered water, despite the wallet-friendly prices. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Similar to Old Jesse, the Noodles in Scallion, Oil and Soy Sauce (RMB22) are quintessential Shanghainese, although less slick ‘saucy’ than their street side counterparts. While we appreciate the addition of dried shrimp – a topping that is sometimes overlooked – the small quantity of caramelized scallions gets lost amongst the noodles more so than at Old Jesse. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Similarly, the Braised Pork in Shanghai Grandma Recipe (RMB88), departs from the more ubiquitous hongshaorou in that the sauce is less of a rich crimson and the meat is tougher than at Old Jesse. The tofu skin knots and boiled quail eggs complement the fatty meat but, given the choice, Old Jesse again wins hands down. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Deep Fried Bean Curd Skin with Peanut Sauce (RMB28), translated directly from Chinese as Shanghai Vegetarian Duck, is a log of a spring roll, stuffed with julienned veggies and vegetarian duck meat. The predominant flavor is unfortunately that of oil, so a slathering of peanut sauce is necessary. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Matching up the Yellow Fish with Scallion (RMB60) – which comes with five small yellow croaker fish wrapped in a bed of scallions – against Old Jesse’s fish head, is an unfair fight. While crispy and flavorful, the yellow croakers at Jianguo328 are a bone graveyard; the effort to reward ratio is heavily skewed in the favor of Old Jesse’s uber-meaty fish head. Although similar in outside appearance, the two dishes prove to be quite different, and the quality and flavor of the fish at Old Jesse still justifies the nearly quadruple price. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Stir Fried Shrimps, Shanghai Style (RMB42) are an absolute must, our favorite bite of the meal. Succulent, sweet and expertly fried to a crisp with clean oil, these make for the best possible beer snack. 

There you have it. The competition really isn’t one. Jianguo328 is your answer to a cheap and cheerful, consistent Shanghainese win, whereas Old Jesse is in a league of its own, with a heftier price tag to match. 

While Old Jesse wins out against Jianguo328 in most categories – the major downsides are that a reservation is a must and Old Jesse does require a fatter wallet. But if time and money aren’t an issue, the food reward end justifies any and all means. 

See a listing for Old Jesse and Jianguo328.

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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