East Nanjing Road at Night

My Dad on East Nanjing Road at Night

My father tries to keep pace with me. Sometimes, I forget his age, walk swiftly, and think he is as youthful and adventuresome as me. Around us, neon glares on Shanghai’s East Nanjing Road. This is a pedestrian street filled with western retailers, and it is also filled with Chinese panhandlers, would-be pimps, and scam artists targeting western tourists. “Son, what’s the Chinese I need to say to these people?”

I take quick puff of my cigarette. “不要。” Then, I flick my cigarette away.

“Say it slowly?”

“Boo.”

“Boo,” he repeats.

“Yao – think of Yao in Yao Ming.

“Okay.” He remains silent for a moment. Then, he repeats boo yao a couple of times. “What does it mean, again?”

“Literally? It’s the words for not and want. It’s a forceful way to say not interested.

“Okay.” My father mumbles this to himself a few more times. A man scurries up behind him, and just as get’s the words “you want cheap watch” out, my dad turns quickly, points a finger in the man’s eyeballs, and yells “不要!”

The Chinese man hawking watches immediately stops and confusion paralyzes his face. His mouth drops open, a little. He thinks about what has just happened. An elderly, six foot two white guy had just yelled at him in Chinese. The sheer novelty of that alone gets him laughing so hard, he has stopped following the two of us. Of course, this is East Nanjing Road in Shanghai – another scam artist instantly zeros in on the two of us. Next thing you know, my dad is snarling “not want” in Chinese left and right. While, he’s doing that, I’m looking from side to side and trying to locate a place to us to eat dinner. My search is not going all that well.

Earlier in the day, my father had just gotten off a trans-pacific flight from California. He’d left New Jersey to visit some relatives on the West Coast, and then he thought to fly to the Middle Kingdom to see me. As part of his own life of world travel, he had been to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, but he had never been to Mainland China. So, this trip was a first. I had booked a hotel room at Pudong International Airport so he could rest a little after getting through Chinese customs. We also planned to spend a few days in Shanghai together before returning to my day to day life in Changzhou. As for his first supper in China, I made the mistake of thinking we could easily find a restaurant on highly tourist-trafficked East Nanjing Road.  We walked and walked for a while, and then his bad knee started to hurt. Once we passed a Yangzhou-cuisine restaurant, we stopped and went in. After all, there were other foreigners there, and they didn’t look like your average tourists. They dressed like expats.

In retrospect, I had gone about looking for food in the wrong way. While my dad rebuked hawkers and panhandlers, I had only kept my eyes fixed on the ground-level store fronts. In China, that’s generally a bad idea. Ground floor real estate is more expensive with higher rents. If you go into shopping centers, you start seeing restaurants more and more on floors two, three, and higher. Walk into your average Injoy or Wanda Mall in a Chinese smaller Chinese city, and you will see this. In makes sense that the pattern is same in an international and cosmopolitan Chinese city like Shanghai.

Actually, that turned out to be true for East Nanjing Road as well. Upon a second visit, months after my dad returned to America, I had learned that we had actually passed a ton of restaurants. I just didn’t know where to look at the time. One of those shopping centers – the Henderson Metropolitan – actually has an entrance to the East Nanjing Road subway station inside. My father and I had come up the escalator that night, passed places to eat, and didn’t know any better.

City Bull's Second Floor Entrance at Henderson Metropolitan

City Bull’s Second Floor Entrance at Henderson Metropolitan

Open returning to the Henderson Metropolitan two months later, there were more than a few choices. One of which was Food Fusion, which is a Malaysian chain that is quite good. (I recommend the curry dishes). However, I also noticed a western steakhouse, bar and grill called City Bull on the second floor. I stopped and looked at their menu – hell, they even offered Canadian poutine-gravy-cheesy-French fries. They even stocked Hoegaarden – a very tasty Belgian wheat beer I loved to drink as a teenager.  I was hungry, so I said what the hell to myself and asked to be seated.

The waitress brought me to a window seat, and from there I browsed the menu and watched traffic and pedestrians come, go, and bustle by. The menu listed lots of steak choices, and even exotic – by Chinese standards – western sandwiches. I mulled over getting pulled pork on a bun, but in the end I just settled on a bacon cheeseburger. If a restaurant in China can’t get something like a cheeseburger right, then there is no hope for the more exotic. Typically, I usually order a burger when a western joint is new to me. I also ordered an appetizer – jalapeño poppers, because it had been the first time I had ever seen them on a Chinese menu. And while I would have relished and nice, cold bottle of Hoegaarden, it was like 4pm in the afternoon, and I really don’t like drinking beer early in the day. Two Diet Cokes did me fine.

Terrible, Overpriced Jalapeno Poppers

Terrible, Overpriced Jalapeno Poppers

The food was a profoundly mixed result. I must say, the service, however, was attentive and quick, but I found myself questioning any desire to return to this place. The jalapeño poppers were just bad, and I struggled to eat them. However, since western appetizers are expensive, and I was paying for this, I forced them down my throat anyway. What was the problem, here? They were served with a ramekin of bland sour cream that had next to no flavor. Even worse, they were barely cooked. Jalapeño poppers are usually deep fried cream cheese mixed with very hot Mexican green peppers. These things tasted like they had come out of a freezer and were shoved into a microwave. Even worse, they were not even in the microwave all that long. The cream cheese was cold; the jalapeño slices were also cold and watery. If I were in America, I would have returned them and complained. However, when you do not have great Chinese language skills, you don’t do that. It can be a big headache – even though this restaurant did have English speaking staff. I just didn’t want to bother.

The burger was good. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t great, but I have had worse hamburgers in China from far more high-end and pricier places. It comes down to this: burgers in China can tend to me a little dry, and that’s because

Okay as bacon cheeseburgers go....

Okay as bacon cheeseburgers go….

the ground beef used to make them are far too lean. In short: not enough fat content. While not especially large, at least the patty had some juice to it. The bacon, too, seemed okay – not wonderful, but also not the lean hog strips the Chinese like to call bacon. While I seemed to choke down the earlier poppers and chase it with Diet Coke, this I ate leisurely and slightly enjoyed. The lightly salted French fries served with the sandwich also went down rather well, too.

The final verdict? City Bull was not too pricy for Shanghai standards, and that is saying something for a location crowded with tourists. The bacon cheeseburger gave me hope that some of the other sandwiches offered might also be nice, but the abysmal jalapeño poppers made me never want to go back there. I mean, that’s failing on something super easy. Okay, you’re not making them from scratch and they come out of a freezer bag, this is China, and I wouldn’t expect something this “exotic” be made any other way – but at least put them in the microwave long enough where they are edible.

Maybe “never go back” is harsh language? I can think of one reason why I might return Let’s say that I picked up visiting friend or relative at Pudong International. Let’s also say we were also very hungry, walking on East Nanjing Road, and were growing tired of people trying to sell us watches, massages, “special messages,” or “anything you want.” Let’s say the moon was out, and we didn’t have a lot of choices during that time of day other than fast food like KFC. Sure, I would go back then. If City Bull has anything going for it, it has a very, very convenient location. Just be wary that it’s not far from being the best western food you could be eating in Shanghai.