On the same street as Xiao Shaoxing, you’ll find another little casual eatery with a long history. Famous for their pork ribs and rice cakes, Xian De Lai was established in 1921 by He Shide and his family who started out by selling milk, bread and toast on Xizang Nan Lu. After realising that these Western dishes weren’t that popular with the locals, they started selling the paigu niangao (pork ribs and rice cakes) instead, and the brand hasn’t looked back since.
When ordering at the counter, the receptionist, who has been working at Xian De Lai for more than 30 years, proudly tells us that they sell at least 10,000 portions of the paigu niangao every day. Their normal sales are 20-30,000 portions per day, climbing to an incredible 40-50,000 a day around Spring Festival. The open kitchen is testament to their output productivity, with huge vats of oil and giant woks all part of the production line.
Senior Chef Le Kefeng, who has been working at Xian De Lai for close to 40 years, is pretty relaxed about the popularity of their paigu niangao, and about life in general. ‘People keep returning because they are familiar with the brand,’ he says matter-offactly. ‘Also because when they walk into the restaurant, they see that the chefs who are cooking are those who have been here for a long time, so they know the quality of the food will be reliable and they keep coming back.’
There aren’t any secret formulas or fancy tricks here, just the same recipes and methodology that has served them well for almost a century. For Chef Le, ‘it’s just that the way we make it is different. Other places will fry the niangao, but for us, we boil it in water and then marinate it in our special sauce. It’s precisely because we boil it in water that the chewy texture remains the same even after a few hours.’ And the sauce is Xian De Lai’s own recipe, made up of sugar, assorted jams, tomato sauce, sweet sauce, chilli oil, starch, salt, and dried chilli – it’s mouth-wateringly addictive.
Key dishes The paigu niangao (排骨年糕, pork ribs with rice cakes) is what you’re here for. They can be ordered in a set with an accompanying bowl of soup with meat dumplings wrapped in tofu skin for 19RMB, or solo for a bargainous price of 11RMB. The ribs are doused in Xian De Lai’s slightly sweet and wonderfully rich sauce and the rice cakes are slippery but chewy, pairing well with the juicy fried pork ribs. It’s not high-end dining here, but simple and honest food cooked by humble chefs that care about their product.