Sunday, May 29, 2016

Top 5 Things to See & Eat in Shanghai

Nanjing Road

Xiao Long Bao – Soupy dumplings, better known as xiao long bao in Chinese, are small steamed buns traditionally filled with soupy pork or sometimes crab meat. The restaurant Nanxiang Man Tou in Shanghai Old Town is famous for these juicy dumplings, which come in various sizes. (No.85 Yuyuan Road, Huangpu District, Old Town God's Temple, Shanghai, China) 

Hot Pot – At a traditional hot pot restaurant, you will find a simmering, delicious pot of broth at the center of your table with various dishes to dip into the boiling liquid. I recommend visiting the restaurant chain Hai Di Lao for some incredible Sichuan-style hotpot. Caution: Very spicy! (6F,588 Zhangyang Road, Shanghai, China) 

Shanghai Museum – Centrally located in Shanghai’s People's Square, this ancient Chinese art museum features exhibitions ranging from jade to porcelain and even traditional furniture. The museum originally opened in 1952 and today, admission is free. (201 Renmin Ave, Huangpu, Shanghai, China) 

Nanjing Road – Nanjing Road is the main shopping street in Shanghai. If you thought New York City was bustling, you’re in for a big surprise! Named after the neighboring city of Nanjing, this road includes everything—from restaurants to retail stores—and is filled to the brim with millions of shoppers everyday. (Nanjing Rd Pedestrian St, Huangpu, Shanghai, China) 

The Bund – The Bund, also known as Waitan, is a scenic waterfront area in Shanghai, which runs along the Huangpu River. Take a stroll along this beautiful walkway for some great people watching and sight seeing. If the weather permits, I recommend stopping by a rooftop bar such as M on the Bund for afternoon tea and a light snack. (20 Guangdong Rd, Huangpu, Shanghai, China)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Exploring Shanghai: From the Museum to the Hot Pot


Shanghai Museum
Our first full day In Shanghai kicked off with a large dose of Chinese culture--a trip to the Shanghai Museum. Centrally located in People's Square, this ancient Chinese art museum contained exhibitions ranging from jade, to porcelain, to calligraphy and even traditional furniture. We wandered the floors until our feet just couldn't take it anymore and left to find Nanjing Road, a bustling pedestrian walkway extending from our hotel to Huangpu River.

Nanjing Road
One thing you have to understand about Nanjing Road is that it's insane. Hundreds and hundreds of people walk along this pathway all day long to shop, eat or just take in the sights. We walked along and eventually our hunger and exhaustion got the best of us so we stopped in a side restaurant with outdoor seating. We ordered two massive beers, some egg rolls, and people watched for a while. Crowds and crowds of people passed by as we sat, sipped our beers and took in the scenery.

Once we were fully rejuvenated from beer and egg rolls, my dad and I strolled to the end of the Nanjing Road (I was only slightly hit by one motorcycle, which is actually pretty impressive when they are whizzing past from every direction) where we arrived at the Bund.

The Bund & Shanghai Old Town
Along the Huangpu River, an elevated walkway known as the Bund acts as a scenic pedestrian freeway. Visitors can stroll along the water with a beautiful view of Shanghai's tallest sky scrapers to one side of the river and historic Western architecture dating back to turn of the century on the other. It's a stunning contrast. Per Frommer's suggestion, we got a rooftop table at M on the Bund for some afternoon tea, wine and cheese. The sun came out and we sat and relaxed, watching boats travel along the river. Soaking in Shanghai from above the Bund was definitely a unique experience, which made me realize in the moment how unbelievably fortunate I am to be spending a week on vacation in China with my dad.

The rest of the day was a blur of waking and trying not to get hit by cars and motorcycles. We made our way over to Yu Yuan (Yu Garden), a classical Chinese garden, followed by a visit to Shanghai Old Town, a seemingly preserved section of old Shanghai, complete with traditional Chinese architecture and endless opportunities to buy cheap souvenirs. Feeling adventurous, my dad purchased some deep fried shrimp in dough from an Old Town vendor, which happens to be one of my favorite dim sum dishes. The lady hands us the shrimp, fresh out of the oil, and my dad eagerly takes a big bite... Little did we know that the ENTIRE shrimp was nestled in the fried dough--legs, skin, eyeballs, extremely sharp carapace and all (yes we had to Yahoo! shrimp anatomy to find out what the hell that pointy thing was). It's sufficient to say we didn't eat the rest of our little deep fried crustaceans.

Hot pot please 
Another meal on my "must eat in Shanghai" list was hot pot. In case you haven't had it before, hot pot can be best described as shabu-shabu with boiling hot chili oil instead of boiling water. So, for dinner we went to a nearby hot pot restaurant called Hai Di Lao; this was one of my favorite meals in China thus far.

Nobody in the restaurant spoke English, but we managed to order a half non spicy seafood hotpot and half super spicy chili oil hot pot, with thinly sliced bacon, beef and noodles to cook as our meal. We carefully dipped meat slices in the boiling liquid, then dipped that into little bowls of sesame seeds, peanut butter, soy sauce, chives, sesame oil and chili oil that we concocted ourselves at the restaurant's DIY bar. Hai Di Lao cleverly provided us with touch screen plastic baggies for our phones (to prevent splashing oil from damaging them), red aprons and even a hair tie for me. I don't want to think about the hot pot accidents that must a have happened in the past to promote this level of hot pot caution.

The meal was topped off with sunflower seeds and green tea. My dad was chugging beer and attending to his runny nose, exclaiming how spicy the meal was, but I had to disagree. Maybe it was my half Asian genes, maybe it was the fact that I strategically avoided the floating red chilis, but I honestly didn't think the heat level was too painful. Note to self: find a hot pot restaurant when I return to New York City.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Weekend in Shanghai: Trains, Dumplings & More

  • Number of Chinese cities visited: 2
  • Number of people who have mistaken me for Chinese: 11 and counting 


Ticket to Shanghai
After a night of drinking and wandering the Beijing nightlife with a friend from middle school, I woke up abruptly on Friday morning, checking the clock to make sure my dad and I hadn't missed our train to Shanghai. Thankfully, traffic wasn't too horrendous and we arrived at the station with an hour to spare, just enough time for a quick espresso. For the next six hours, we sat in first class on a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, flying past smoggy village, factories and farms at an impressive 304 km/hr.

We arrived in Shanghai feeling hungry, exhausted and sore from the long journey. The second we stepped off the train, I was awestruck by the insane volume of people pouring through the station from every direction. I was drifting amidst a sea of Chinese families, businessmen, school groups, friend groups and every other kind of group you can imagine. So. Many. People.

One thing we learned on day one in China: there is no concept of "personal space." Everyone shoves, pushes and cuts in front of everyone else without a moment's hesitation. This fact was even more painfully obvious in the overcrowded train station. We eventually managed to figure out where our hotel was and fought our way through the thick swarms of people to the subway. Once we arrived at our beautiful Marriott hotel, we got situated, and immediately set out on a quest to find some dinner.


The great dumpling quest
When I first realized I was actually going to China for vacation, images of soup dumplings immediately popped into my head. So, on our first night in Shanghai I knew I wanted one thing for dinner, xiao long bao. We did a quick Yahoo! search (Google is blocked in China) and found that a nearby restaurant called Nanxiang Man Tou was famous for its juicy dumplings. Getting our hands on these little xiao long bao couldn't be too difficult, right? Wrong. So, so wrong.

We followed instructions from our phones and took the subway to the restaurant. When we arrived at our destination, we looked around in confusion--the restaurant was nowhere to be seen. We looked up the address again and realized we somehow had it wrong and the restaurant was actually a 10 min walk away. So, my dad and I trekked along in the rain to our renewed destination. Upon our arrival, the restaurant is again nowhere in sight. Starving and incredibly frustrated, we looked up the address one more time and realized that Nanxiang Man Tou was located in an entirely different part of town. Who knew that dinner plans in Shanghai could go so horribly wrong?

Flash forward to a taxi ride later and we finally found the famed xiao long bao. We ordered as many dumplings as our hands could carry and sat under an overhang, watching the rain fall as we slurped the juicy dumpling insides with straws. Were they filled with pork? Seafood? Who knows... All I know is that this was not a bad first night in this beautiful city.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

From Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square
On day three in China, I decided to check off the major Beijing sights with a solo tour arranged through my hotel. I breathed a sigh of relief when I walked into the lobby to discover that my tour guide was a young, friendly 30-something Chinese woman--this was actually going to be fun! 

Together, we drove to Tiananmen Square, the heart of Beijing. As we meandered, my tour guide explained that on weekends, the Square is much more crowded with tourists from all over China. If this was considered "not crowded," then I never want to see it on a weekend. Everywhere I looked, Tiananmen Square was swarming with groups of tourists in matching outfits, school groups with matching uniforms and families taking photos with selfie sticks. It was a madhouse. We walked around, skipping Chairman Mao's crystal coffin and instead heading in the direction of the Forbidden City. 



The Forbidden City
The sun was shining and blue skies were peeking through the smog as we followed the stream of people into the gates of the Forbidden City. This massive palace was once home to Chinese emperors and their families and includes around 8,000 rooms across 180 acres. 

Fun fact: Chinese emperors traditionally each had 72 "wives," all of which lived within the imperial palace walls. Bonus: the Forbidden City was constructed entirely without the use of nails! 

My tour guide led me from building to building to see the living quarters of past royalty, official meeting areas and even the garden where deer once roamed free for the Emperor's entertainment and relaxation. The intricate details woven into the construction of the Forbidden City were impressive, especially considering it was built in the 1400s. 

Duck blood for one
With the major touristy attractions out of the way, my tour guide and I stopped in a silk factory where I learned how silk fabrics are made from silkworms (a fact I wish I could un-learn) and she dropped me off at a local mall so I could grab a quick, authentic Chinese lunch. 

Having traveled a decent amount and having lived in New York City for almost 2 years, I consider myself very self sufficient and independent. But, as I wandered around this multi-level Chinese mall, I found myself wishing for help, preferably in the form of a Chinese/English translator. Not only was I the only American, but every restaurant (minus Sizzler) featured all-Chinese menus of food I had never even heard of. So what's a New Yorker to do?

I decided to go for the most popular food stall with the longest line. Everyone else is doing it, so the food must be good, right? As I moved closer and closer to the cashier, I hesitantly asked my neighbors in line, "Do you speak English?" Thankfully, the young Chinese guy in front of me understood my confused tone and ordered me the same thing he ordered, which I quickly discovered was duck blood and vermicelli soup. I admit I was skeptical, but when in China, do as the Chinese do. 

Believe it or not, the soup was amazing. If nobody had told me that the gelatinous chunks were duck blood, I never would have guessed otherwise. It was spicy, hot and delicious (and only cost about $2). According to Wikipedia, this dish is a traditional soup from Nanjing, China and also includes gizzards and duck intestines. The next big trend in New York dining: duck parts? 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Toboggans, Antique Markets & Peking Duck


  • Sights seen in China: Great Wall & Panjiayuan Market
  • Number of people who have mistaken me for Chinese: 6
  • First stop: the Great Wall

After one book, three movies, and a total of fifteen long hours in the air, I landed in Beijing on Monday night where I met my dad in Beijing Capital International Airport. The next morning, we hit the ground running. At 7am (painfully early), we joined a tour group to visit one of the seven wonders of the world--the Great Wall.

It truly seemed like the stars aligned for our visit to the Great Wall. Not only did we have a comfortable group of only 4 people, but the sun was shining and, because we went so early, we beat the tourist rush. After a one hour drive from downtown Beijing and quick stop to a pottery-making shop, we arrived at the Great Wall. Was it touristy? Yes... But it was also spectacular. Being on top of the wall and climbing the steps that were built hundreds and hundreds of years ago, possibly as early at 770 BC, I was blown away by the scale and remoteness of this giant wonder.

Great Wall, Awesome Toboggan 

By far, the best part of visiting the Great Wall was the toboggan ride down. As an alternative to the seated lift which carries you up and down the mountain, visitors can SLIDE down down a metal "chute" on little black wheeled toboggans. Recently, the Obamas made a trip to China and the First Lady, with her daughters, bravely tobogganed down from the Wall. Since that one visit, China has positioned Ms. Obama as the spokeswoman for the toboggan, with massive posters of her everywhere, wind in her hair and a huge smile on her face as she zips down the slide. For some reason, I highly doubt the White House approved this endorsement...

Riding the toboggan down the Great Wall of China is of my top ten favorite things I've ever done, and I'm sure that Michelle Obama wouldn't disagree. It's terrifying and the entire time I was thinking to myself "don't go too fast and fly off this slide to your death," but it was ridiculous and awesome. Seriously, who thinks to put a slide on one of the country's most popular and historic sites? I have no idea, but I'm so glad they did.

After we slid down from the Wall, we joined out tour group for a traditional Chinese lunch of eggplant, chicken, pork & rice. We also made some additional stops to the cleverly named Mr. Tea for a tea tasting, followed by an unexpected rickshaw ride through the slums of Beijing and a visit to the home of a Chinese family. We thought we signed up for a there-and-back tour of the Great Wall; little did we know that we'd wind up sipping tea in a Chinese family's living room.

Panjiayuan Market

Day two in China, I was on my own. My dad had business meetings so I decided to explore a highly recommended local attraction, Panjiayuan Antique Market. Located in the southeast corner of Beijing's third Ring Road, this sprawling indoor/outdoor market is apparently the largest flea market in China. I took a cab there, and spent hours wandering through rows and rows of vendors, all divided into different sections: beads, used books, antiques, statues, artwork, etc.

Subconsciously determined to practice my haggling skills and find a souvenir for myself, I got into an intense and unintentional price battle with a woman for a tiny Buddha head figurine. She whipped out the calculator, insisting in silent words that I type out  the price I thighs was fair. Soon, we had a sizable crowd around us of other vendors trying to get in on the action and secure the sale. I quickly realized there was no escape and got the price down from 500 RMB to 70 RMB, which felt like a reasonable price for a souvenir I never wanted in the first place (approx. $11).

To get back to the hotel, I was determined to master the Beijing subway system. This could have also been due to the fact that the idea of hailing a cab and somehow explaining to them where my hotel was seemed slightly impossible. Overall, I found the subway to be incredibly straightforward, clean and accessible. It took two transfers and about 15 min of confusion but I eventually found my hotel and went up to my room where I plopped onto the bed in total exhaustion. Mission complete.


Peking Duck

No trip to China is complete without some Peking duck. For dinner, we met up with some of my dad's business associates at DaDong, a restaurant recommended to me by a friend. We were seated at a giant round table and left all the ordering to Robert and his wife, the only two Chinese speakers at the table. Enormous servings of eggplant, lotus root, bamboo shoots, shrimp, salad and fish soup arrived at the table, one after another. Everything was delicious, but the star of the meal was the Peking duck, which was rolled to the side of the table on a white linen cart to be sliced and diced before our eyes. We wrapped the crispy skin and duck meat into thin dough sheets and piled on plum sauce, garlic and other garnishes--the works.

The meal wrapped up with a platter of sliced melon and watermelon. We left the restaurant stuffed and happily drowsy from the red wine and rich food. My first Peking duck experience was wonderful and deliciously authentic.


How to Cure a Case of Wanderlust

In my case, it was simply a matter of saying "yes."

My dad has the privilege of traveling far and wide for business trips. One week he'll be in Korea, the next week he has to make a stop in London, and maybe next month he'll travel for a meeting in Singapore. Me on the other hand, I have come down with a serious case of wanderlust.

In college, I was lucky enough to study abroad in London, where I had an internship at Lancôme and spent my weekends skipping over to places like Paris or Prague with my roommates. Craving some tapas? We'd book a weekend trip to Barcelona. Always wanted to visit Italy? We'd hop on a cheap flight to Rome. It was nonstop adventure and I loved every minute of it. Flash forward to today and it has been three years since I stepped onto an airplane, excited to disembark in exciting, new, unexplored territory. Between living in New York, working in public relations, and using all of my vacation time to visit family for the holidays, international travel fell to the wayside; but my craving to see the world never diminished.

So a few weeks ago when my dad invited me to tag along with him to a business trip on China, I knew that I had to seize the moment and say "yes" to the opportunity of a lifetime.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Searching for New York's Best Tacos

Here in New York City, I find myself constantly in awe of the absurdly talented friends I have surrounded myself with. Most recently, my ex-coworker and good friend Mario Mejia launched his new blog “DESIGNplusTACOS”—a beautifully designed destination for the best Mexican food in NYC, specifically tacos. You could say that Mario is a graphic design extraordinaire by day, and a taco connoisseur by night. This past week, I joined him on an excursion to Chelsea Market to scope out Los Tacos No. 1. Check out the full post below, written by Mario, and be sure to visit DESIGNplusTACOS to follow his quest to uncover New York's tastiest tacos! 


After several different people recommended "the taco place inside Chelsea Market," I knew I had to give Los Tacos No. 1 a try. I must admit that although I have been in New York for a year now, this was the first time I visited Chelsea Market – and boy was I glad I did! For those of you who aren't familiar, Chelsea Market is a hybrid indoor shopping center meets foodie heaven slash rustic art installation. Basically, my new favorite place.

When we first walked into the market I was a bit overwhelmed since there was a lot going on. People shopping, people eating, people talking, people walking... so many people! Luckily for me, my friend Brittany was no stranger to the busy market and led the way until we arrived to our destination. As you can tell by the picture below, we weren't the only ones in the mood for tacos. We waited in line for about five to ten minutes as we caught up on our weeks and tried to figure out what we wanted to eat. Unlike many other taquerias, Los Tacos No. 1 only serves three different meat options (carne asada, pollo asado, and adobada) and a vegetarian option (nopales) offered in either tacos, quesadillas, or mulas.

Originally I was going to try a taco in each of the meat options but in a moment spontaneity (what I like to call "panic orders") decided to switch one of them for the vegetarian option. All three tacos were made with fresh hand-made tortillas and topped with the usual condiments: onion, cilantro, salsa roja, and a salsa style guacamole. I'm not usually a huge fan of chicken tacos but their pollo asado (grilled chicken) taco ended up being my favorite. The chicken was nice and juicy with a slight smokey, almost burnt taste that I loved. A close second, and Brittany's favorite, was the carne asada taco – full of flavor and you could tell the steak was fresh as it melted in your mouth. I really wish I could write more about them, but they were just too good to remember all the details! In hindsight, I wish I would have stuck with my original lineup and ordered adobada instead as the nopales taco ended up being a bit of a let down. Though I usually love grilled nopales, these were way too bland for my taste – maybe they forgot to add seasoning before cooking? Maybe it's just my personal taste?


Despite the nopales letdown, their flavorful meat tacos were tasty enough to keep me a happy camper. Can they really live up to their "No. 1" name? I can't guarantee it, but they're certainly up there! As I stood there (the seating options were limited so we ate at a communal standing table) savoring my tacos I told Brittany, "I'm not sure what it is but these tacos remind me of my family barbecues." Yup, they're that good!

Overall I would certainly recommend Los Tacos No. 1 and am definitely planning on going back myself. Their location inside Chelsea Market and being steps from The Highline make it the perfect destination for a weekend adventure, especially now that the weather is getting better and better. As you'll notice in some of the pictures below, we had a fun time!

TACO HUNT SCORE: 4/5
Think you'll make Los Tacos No. 1 a part of your next weekend adventure? Let me know via Twitter andInstagram @mromja and using #designplustacos.PS - DESIGNplusTACOS is still new so if you like what you see, please pass it along!