Searching for Mr. Wu’s Scallion Pancakes in Shanghai

We hear they're some of the best in the country.

I am certain it’s just around the corner. I am wrong. The “X” marked on my map of Shanghai turns out to be yet another hollowed-out construction site framed by billboards for luxury condos with marble bathrooms and doormen in formal attire. At every turn, my search is thwarted by the city’s fast-changing neighbourhoods (and an acutely felt absence of Google Maps).

The subject of my quest is Mr. Wu, a sixty-year-old who is Internet-famous among locals and food-motivated travellers for his scallion-pork pancakes, rumoured to be among the best in the country. The catch: You’ve got to find his hole-in-the-wall shop, located on one of the many back alleys hidden behind the French Concession’s tree-lined streets. On day one of my hunt, I twist and turn and lose myself down these dead-end lanes, known locally as lilongs. Ten hours in, standing next to a derelict Shikumen courtyard home in the shadow of a gleaming skyscraper, I feel hung out to dry like the crisp laundry criss-crossing the lilongs above me.

Jul 1, 2019
Google Maps pin for Mr. Wu's in Shanghai

As the late-afternoon sun dips below the tips of the plane trees on day two, I pick up the scent of hot oil wafting down a narrow alley near a dry cleaner’s. Dozens of acolytes – locals and visitors alike – are lined up in reverential silence, eyes fixed on a diminutive, bowed man rolling freshly cut scallions and fatty pork into dough. I watch as, eyes downcast, he flattens each ball of dough on the grill before frying them atop a burning oil drum. At long last, Mr. Wu.

After an hour in line, I find myself in front of the man himself and hold up two fingers to indicate my order. Mr. Wu, without making eye contact, scoops the pancakes into a bag as I hand over my yuan. The transaction is over in a flash, so I steal another moment to watch him work, slowly, methodically, unrelentingly.

Less methodical is my consumption of the treasured pancake. I make it only a few steps from Mr. Wu’s window before taking a bite. The pancake is soft and crisp – definitely the best I have ever had – and brightened by the spring onions and salty nuggets of pork. I stand completely still in a pancake-induced trance at the crossroads of old and new Shanghai, until I finish the last layered bite of savoury, greasy perfection.

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