ROAMING through Hangzhou’s historic Zhongshan Road S. at midnight, it is certainly an eye-opener for the locals and tourists alike. From snacking on local delicacies to taking in the ancient buildings, culture and scenery, it is an experience you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.
The 1,400-meter Zhongshan Road S. is one of the oldest streets in Hangzhou. It starts from the Drum Tower and ends at what used to be the imperial palace of the Southern Song (1127-1279) regime, after the ruling Zhao family was forced to relocate to Hangzhou after a defeat to the nomadic Jurchen people.
The imperial palace was then built beside Fenghuangshan Hill at the south end of the imperial city. Zhongshan Road S. to the north was where the central government was located.
In 1995, at a construction site along the road, remains of the imperial ancestral temple were excavated. Only a small part of the outer wall, gate platforms and foundations of the building survive.
The area is now protected as a site of the Imperial Temple, an urban park of 15,000 square meters covered in greenery. A monument standing at the center is a reminder of its past and present.
Traces of an imperial life may be hard to find, only existing in the names of the many alleyways that extend perpendicularly from the main Zhongshan Road.
It is a two-lane street no wider than 5 meters. The large plane trees that flank the entire length of the street offer a shade and protection from the sun in summer. The area is more slow-paced, casual and native than in the past, which can’t be seen in other parts of the city.
Non-chain shops take up the ground floor of the street side buildings. One may find a small grocery store selling almost everything from household brooms to children’s toys, or an old barber’s shop, where the hairdressers put on their white lab coats, cut hair and shave the beards of men.
It is always a pleasure to roam the street in the warm weather. The long-standing hawker stalls and neighborhood restaurants run by families offer several dining options throughout the day.
The day may begin with Youfu Soy Milk (游阜豆浆) at Chenghuangpailou Lane, a backstreet alley stretching from Zhongshan Road.
The place provides local breakfast foods, including shaobing, a baked Chinese flatbread and youtiao, a deep-fried Chinese dough stick, and, of course, soy milk served in two different ways.
The sweet soy milk is simply prepared by adding sugar, while the salty one is made by pouring hot soy milk into a bowl of pickled mustard greens, dried shrimp, chopped scallions, coriander, youtiao croutons and soy sauce.
A shop owner pours 80-degree-Celsius soy milk from a level almost 50 centimeters above the table, like a veteran acrobatics performer. Only by doing this will there be enough bubbles in the soy milk to fully marinate the youtiao and maintain its crispy crust.
A notice on the wall reminds customers not to stir when taking the savory soy milk. The correct way is to sip from the rim of the bowl while slowly turning it, like the locals do.
The prices are fairly reasonable – shaobing per serving is 2 yuan (US$0.32), a bowl of soy milk is 3 yuan while tofu pudding costs 4 yuan.
There are several noodle shops in the area. But none of them can compare to Juying Noodle Shop (菊英面馆) in terms of reputation.
Once featured in the food documentary, “A Bite of China,” broadcast on China Central Television, Juying has somehow become synonymous with the Hangzhou-style pian’erchuan noodles, which is reveared for its umami taste and fresh seasonal ingredients of bamboo shoots and snow mustards.
Originally on Zhonghe Road S. from the opposite side of the overpass, Yan Baofu and his wife, Xu Juying, have run the noodle shop for almost 25 years.
Apart from pian’erchuan, the menu is limited to only a few choices of toppings, such as bok choy, fried eggs, pork shreds and spicy pork.
“These are the noodles that I know how to make well,” said Yan.
The spacious shop is fitted with large windows, with one side facing the bustling traffic flow on Zhonghe Road S. and the other side looking toward the quiet civil life on Zhongshan Road S. Time freezes here and the delicious food somehow has a magical ability to allow customers to forget about their troubles for a few seconds.
Granny Sun’s tasty treats
The afternoon refreshments can vary from Granny Sun’s Shallot Stuffed Pancake (孙奶奶葱包侩儿), to a cup of coffee at Fengma Cafe (风马咖啡).
The hawker stall of Granny Sun is placed on the other side of the street facing the Juying Noodle Shop, which is attached to a tiny alley leading up to her own apartment. It might just be the smallest vendor on the street — a portable stove with a pan on top.
She won’t even ask what flavors you prefer; every step has been set like a default program. Two pairs of pancakes are stuffed with braised rolled tofu skin, which is further brushed with sweet and spicy paste on both sides.
On the other hand, hiding in Fengma Cafe with a cup of their “dirty coffee” is a good alternative to while away the long hours in the afternoon. The establishment’s specialty coffee is nicely produced by topping up cool fresh milk with a layer of hot expresso coffee. Fengma Cafe advises you to drink it in gulps.
The story of Zhongshan Road does not end here. From 6pm to 2am the area comes alive with people and turns into a night food market full of flavors from all over the country. Plastic tables and chairs spring up on the sidewalk and people can enjoy a beer and some food with their friends and families.
If you prefer a private dinner, Uou Izakaya (鱼宇居酒屋) on the nearby Shiwukui Lane is a good choice.
A Japanese man studying in Hangzhou established the restaurant. He later invited a local chef from his hometown, in Tochigi Prefecture, to pass on his culinary skills in making genuine Japanese food served in izakayas.
Uou Izakaya offers a sashimi of sea urchin and ark shell; a Japanese-style grilled meat and vegetables, and nabemono hot pot, featuring rare blowfish. If you don’t fancy that then why not indulge in a selection of imported sake, including plum, grapefruit, peach, mango and blood orange?
Youfu Soy Milk: 108 Chenghuangpailou Lane (Opening hours: 5am-1pm)
Juying Noodle Shop: 368 Zhongshan Rd S. (Opening hours: 6:30am- 1:30pm/4:30-8pm)
Granny Sun’s Shallot Stuffed Pancake: 391 Zhongshan Rd S. (Opening hours: 7:30am-5pm)
Fengma Cafe: 371 Zhongshan Rd S. (Opening hours:10am-6pm)
Uou Izakaya: 43 Shiwukui Lane (Opening hours: 5pm-2am)