One of my vacation dining goals was to sample as many regional cuisines as I could, and preferably ones not available in NYC (though my Sichuan bent got the better of me and I ended up eating it more than once even though I can get it here). Southern Barbarian, a slightly atypical Shanghai restaurant serving Yunnan food, was the source of one of my more memorable meals. Though to be annoyingly nonpartisan, I didn’t really eat anything unmemorable or even unlikable, with the exception of a few standard issue hotel breakfasts, melon slices and a shao bing that tasted like baking soda.
Yunnan province borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam so you might expect more Southeast Asian ingredients that typical Chinese ones. What I found didn’t really adhere strictly to any of those countries.
Maybe I’ve been in New York too long because I expect even the blahest of restaurants to be busy. There were only three other tables occupied when we arrived at Southern Barbarian at 8:30pm Halloween night. However, we did seem to eat late by Chinese standards. We tried scaling back our more typical 9pm to 8pm (two out of four nights in Beijing were a bust—I was so tired that I fell asleep before 8pm and I’m still steamed that I missed two potential dinners) but I think 6pm is more standard.
One of the only unfortunate things about China was that I didn’t know anyone. Socializing wasn’t so critical, but sharing food would’ve been a boon. Two people can only eat so much and I can’t justify ordering lots and nibbling little even when pricing is extremely gentle. At most places we settled on two entrees and one appetizer. At Southern Barbarian we went a little overboard with broad beans with Yunnan ham, potato pancake, salt and pepper cheese, beef with chile and mint and grilled chicken, and somehow still managed to eat everything. I would've loved to try the dumplings and cross the bridge noodles (spelled/translated various ways) but that would've been ridiculous.
James was scared of Chinese goat cheese (I was scared of the dish with honeybees), but there was no way I was ignoring it. Fried cheese? Come on. The thin barely crispy squares were very mild, un-goaty, and dusted with tingly Sichuan pepper.
It was decided that chile powder coated beef on toothpicks would fit in at a Super Bowl party. We’ll try to replicate it come February. Strange as it sounds, a lot of this food, including their vast selection of barbecued meats, wouldn’t be out of place on a menu of bar snacks. Keeping with the pubby theme, they also have a very un-Chinese collection of imported craft beers in bottles. We had to ask for Brooklyn Lager because we’re hokey.
“I don’t think this is Chinese food,” James commented. I could see his point with the broad beans and Yunnan ham, which strongly resembled thick split pea soup on a plate. What he meant was that he thought the chef was taking liberties. I didn’t believe there was nothing nouveau going on. We were told by the owner (one of the most fluent English speakers we encountered in a restaurant) that everything was home-style, not the sort of things you’d find in a restaurant in Yunnan, and that sounded reasonable to me.
Maybe that’s why I liked everything so much; starchy and fried is my thing. If I had a few more days in China, I definitely would’ve tried another Yunnan restaurant for comparison.
Southern Barbarian * 2/F Area E, Ju’Roshine Life Arts Space, 56 Maoming Lu, Shanghai, China