Wenzhou is a prosperous port and industrial city of a couple of million people on the Eastern seaboard. Shrouded in dense smog and without any cultural aspects to speak of, even the locals I spoke to weren’t particularly keen on the place. There’s no real reason to come here unless you are doing business, particularly in shoes, fertiliser, electrical goods and fakes of all kinds. Historically it has been isolated from the rest of the country by a mountain range and has developed a different culture as a result.
On the culinary side of things, it’s known for its seafood and inhabitants who have a reputation for travelling overseas and starting restaurants in other countries. However a survey of travel sites and guides failed to bring up any recommended places to eat at all. Unusually there was nothing on Trip Advisor, Virtual Tourist or Chow Hound and only one mention of an eatery selling local food in the Lonely Planet, which turned out to be factually incorrect.
LP lists Wenzhou Mingdian (which suspiciously translates as ‘Wenzhou Restaurant’) as being the oldest restaurant in the city (100 years) and a good place to try the local specialities Yu Yuan Mian (fish noodles) and Yu Bing (fish cakes). Maybe things have changed since they were here last, but the business at the same address (195 Jiefang Jie) is actually called Chang Ren and is famous for its Wonton soups. Rather than an ancient restaurant, it’s more of a dilapidated cafe in a relatively modern building with plastic tables, rudimentary fittings, a filthy floor and a downmarket clientele who will be very surprised to see you. No matter, the main thing is the food, and it’s great! I had the shrimp wontons (hun tun) which come in a clear broth with shredded carrot, spinach, seaweed, spring onions, a couple of tiny prawns and something else pickled and green. On the side I had a plate of ‘fire dumplings’, which I guessed contained pork and spring onion, and a saucer of vinegar and soya sauce for dipping. The dumplings were good, if a bit singed (B), but the wonton soup was wonderful (A) and everything was really cheap. Other varieties of wontons are available too (pork, beef, chicken) but its best to get your choices written down by a Chinese person before you go as there is no menu at all, just signs in Chinese on the walls. They don’t sell beer either, or in fact any drinks, but there is a wine shop about a block down on the same side. It’s very close to Wuma Jie, a pedestrian shopping street where you can take a stroll afterwards.
If you do want to eat Yu Yuan Mian, there are a lot of little places in town that specialise in them but I didn’t get to try them in the 18 hours I was in town.
On my first trip here in 2008 I had an unmemorable stay at the Dynasty Hotel. This time however work put me up at the much nicer Ex Palm D’Or Hotel on the next corner up. It’s a very pleasant boutique hotel with small but comfortable rooms which have free internet and a Bose speaker system that you can plug your music player into. There is no gym or other facilities but they do have an Italian Restaurant which I tried for lunch as I was pushed for time. The Spaghetti with Clams, Cherry tomatoes and zucchini didn’t of course taste like it would in its country of conception but it was well cooked and nicely presented, if a bit steep at 88 RMB. There were two types of clams, one exactly like vongole verace and another with a grey shell I was unfamiliar with.
I ended up in the hotel for lunch because my first choice from my last visit, the Taj Mahal, had moved to a new location and was closed by the time I found it. Originally at 532 Nampu Lu, about 10 minutes from the hotel, it has now moved a block down onto the other side of the street to a more modern second floor location. If you can’t find it (the English sign is tiny and very missable), ask the people in the Italian Restaurant at the original address where it is, as both have the same owner. The curries are ok, if rather mild, but it’s good if you are feeling a bit homesick and fancy a change.