We Walked in a Mall in Shanghai and Fell Into a Tokyo Wormhole

By Sophie Steiner, April 22, 2021

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Shanghai has so many malls. Too many malls. We can’t tell them apart; they lack directories; they make us feel like a test rat running a maze every time we need to find an exit. So we do our best to avoid them. Except for one. Because this one may – in fact – be a wormhole portal to Tokyo, and thus our only way to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun right now. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Metro Town or Meigui Fang (玫瑰坊), just down the block from Zhongshan Park, is a mecca for all things Japanese eats. Use the entrance just off Huichuan Lu and you can avoid the usual mall navigation confusion. In fact, many of the best spots sit on the mall’s perimeter, with entrances onto the main street, avoiding any need to enter the mall proper at all. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

An homage to Shinjuku’s Piss Alley – a street with dozens of tiny, shotgun restaurants and bars (like the Yongkang of Shanghai’s not so recent past) – a handful of yakitori nooks, izakaya hideouts and sashimi stalls sit behind closed doors that are just asking to be opened. Inside the mall, venture up to the second level to find shops specializing in Japanese BBQ, okonomiyaki, cold soba noodles and eel rice.  

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

We stumbled upon this Japanese wonderland somewhat by accident, coming to try out a specific yakitori spot in our search for Shanghai’s best izakayas. What started out as a one-stop visit turned into a day-long feasting extravaganza with numerous returns soon after. 

After our thorough culinary research, we put together a list of some of our favorite spots that you should go out of your way to hit up next time you’re in the area. 

Chidori-Ashi 千鸟足

Walk north past the Huichuan Lu mall entrance, and curve to the right to uncover an alley full of Japanese food havens, Chidori-Ashi being one of our new go-tos for all things grilled meats. Although less interesting in vibe compared to neighboring Toriyasu, the notably friendly service and expertly roasted skewers accelerate this izakaya towards the top of our list in the city. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A tad rough around the edges, the haphazardly taped up posters, post-it labeled bottles of homebrewed alcohol and makeshift cubby stools add character to this charming venue. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Select from any of the 13 chicken parts on the menus, ranging in price from RMB8-15 per skewer. The ultra-crispy Chicken Skin (RMB8) is a must, and your night will be ruined without the Chicken Thigh & Leek (RMB10) – almost an entire thigh’s worth of meat per skewer arrives glossy with oil seeping from the taut, stretched skin. 

Chicken Liver (RMB10) can be hit or miss – an extra minute of cooking results in grainy bits of mineral-forward dried meat – but it could not be more the opposite here. Buttery, almost spreadable pieces cover each bamboo spear, with lingering nuttiness that had us ordering more. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Scorched Squid (RMB38) is seasoned with spicy chili powder and cayenne, cooled down by a quick dunk in some tangy kewpie mayo, while tender Mackerel (RMB28) flakes away from the bone, firm and slightly opaque. A gasp of fresh lemon allows the fish’s natural oiliness to shine, both literally and figuratively. 

Dumplings (RMB20), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Hailing from Osaka, the okonomiyaki is ever so popular in international foodie epicenters, and Chidori-Ashi is just one of many places that offers it to guests in Metro Town. Selecting from different seafood, meat, and veg fillings, we opted for the classic combination of Pork and Kimchi Japanese Pancake (RMB42)

Thick yet light, this batter and egg based fried cake can be stuffed with whatever you like, which –coincidently enough – is how the dish name translates; okinomi means “how you like” and yaki translates to “cooked.” 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Cabbage, grilled pork, scallions and onions are folded into the thick-egg based batter, pan-fried and drizzled with mayo. A generous sprinkling of furikake seasoning adds color, sweetness and a hint of seaweed umami while dancing shreds of bonito flakes flail with life before being consumed. 

Toramaru 虎丸烧肉

Remove your shoes upon entering, and prepare to unbutton your pants, because it’s hard to not overindulge at Toramaru – our favorite Japanese BBQ in Metro Town. Tables are outfitted with coal-powered flat top grills, with grill plates regularly swapped out so your meat always has the freshest char. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

If you’re with a group, it’s best to order one of the mixed beef sets, available for RMB268 and RMB338 for 500 grams, with the price difference relating to the cut’s quality. Each set also comes with some vegetables, like mushrooms and squash – good for keeping the meat sweats at bay. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Other cut options clock in at RMB98 for 100 grams of Chuck Flap or Brisket, RMB188 for 200 grams of thick-cut M9 Premium Beef, RMB268 for 430 grams of Short Rib and RMB118 for 150 grams of Beef Tongue. There are dozens of cuts of beef, so you can easily find something to balance your taste and budget. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Outside of grilled meats, the sides should not be overlooked. Fried Pork Belly and Kimchi (RMB38) is a meat-lovers alternative to Kimchi Cold Tofu (RMB24), a homemade soft tofu cube smothered in pungent kimchi, seaweed and furikake

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

On the carb front, tender strips of Wagyu beef encase a mound of rice in the Wagyu English-Style Beef Rice (RMB52). A glistening yolk sits astride said beef, waiting in anticipation to coat each grain of Japanese rice. A riff on Korean Bibibimbap (RMB38) arrives in a hot stone bowl, charring the exterior layer of rice for a crunchy counterpart to the variety of banchan vegetables, egg and ground beef. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Bonus: all BBQ comes with free flow lettuce, veggie sticks, your choice of any of eight dipping sauces, ‘meat sauce’ – an oily, spiced ground pork paste, like China’s version of Sloppy Joe’s, that we shamelessly scarfed down in lettuce wrap form and spoon to dome style – and, get this, self-serve ice cream. After you’ve OD’d on salt, might as well throw some sugar on the fire. 

Toriyasu 鸟安

A longstanding favorite among foreigners and Chinese alike, Toriyasu is a must visit for the vibe alone. A scratched wooden bar dominates the space, with menu items scrawled vertically in Japanese hiranga down individual dangling brown papers hanging from the bar's top venting. Sitting grillside – smack-dab in the middle of the action – is a must, as watching the yakitori master at work is half the fun.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The skewers here are comparatively cheaper, and that's partly because the meat quality falls somewhere along the lines of average, but what is lost in the latitude between 'solid' and 'the best grilled meats' is made up for in the fun-loving atmosphere. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

All of the regulars make a showing – Chicken Thigh (RMB12), Chicken Gizzards (RMB10), Chicken Breast (RMB10) and Chicken Meatballs (RMB10) that are noticeably smaller than the oblong-shaped one-hitters we find at most other yakitori venues around town, instead similar in size to a large grape. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Enoki Mushrooms Wrapped in Bacon (RMB15) is less crispy than we hoped, but the flaky, expertly salted Mackerel (RMB35) overshadows it. Surprisingly, our two most random orders, the Potato Salad (RMB22) and the Teriyaki Chicken (RMB38) stood out above the rest.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Creamy mashed potatoes laden with dollops of Kewpie mayo form a necessary stomach base for slinging back Highballs (RMB35) and Shochu (RMB25), while the sticky, sweet teriyaki sauce had us dipping everything short of our fingers directly into it. Ok, you caught us – we did dip our fingers in it. 

Eel House 鳗魚家

As the name suggests, Eel House does pretty much one thing: eel. You can choose between classic, tossed or in soup; you can choose if you want a wasabi-based sauce or a sweet soy. But, no matter what you choose, you’re choosing eel. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The classic set is RMB185 for a full portion or RMB95 for a half, served alongside homemade pickles and miso soup. The real bonus here is the sweet, sticky eel sauce, which you serve yourself in any quantity you feel. 

Clearly, we doused our rice in Japan’s classier alternative to American BBQ sauce – made with mirin, soy sauce, sugar and sake – resulting a succulent bite that makes us understand why eel is considered a powerful aphrodisiac.

The soft grilled eel is fluffy and light with a noticeable charred crust from the grill, while the polished rice is expertly cooked, appealing directly to rice snobs (yes, that is a thing). Do yourself a favor and don’t just order the half portion.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

This is just a small sampling of the many Japanese spots in this area, and despite multiple visits, we have only begun to scratch the (grill top’s) surface. We suggest gathering a group and making a day out of hopping along the strip of yakitori joints, sushi and seafood spots, hotpot houses, endlessly alternating between Japanese BBQ, okinomiyaki, eel rice and cold soba noodles. Break it up with a brisk walk (and some people watching) in Zhongshan Park, and then dive back in for round two. 

READ MORE: 7 Izakayas to Satisfy Your Yakitori Cravings in Shanghai

See a listing for Chidori-AshiToramaru, Toriyasu and Eel House

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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