At Shanghai’s famous Ada Scallion Pancakes, expect to wait three hours

Jul 03, 2020

Scallion pancakes, or congyoubing, are a popular to-go breakfast in Shanghai. And one shop is so famous that some people queue hours just to get their hands on one.

In Shanghai, amid the tree-lined boulevards of the city’s former French Concession, a scallion pancake shop has become a neighborhood institution.

Ada Scallion Pancakes is famous for its congyoubing 葱油饼, a crispy, chewy pancake made with scallions that’s usually eaten on the go.

The small hole-in-the-wall shop would be easy to miss if not for the long queues that snake down the block. You won’t find anyone complaining, though.

People wait outside Ada Scallion Pancakes in Shanghai.
People wait outside Ada Scallion Pancakes in Shanghai. / Photo: Benjamin Jie

Every morning, people dutifully wait for their share of the famous Ada pancakes. “I don’t mind waiting for three hours,” says one customer in line. “As long as I get a bite, I can wait.”

Scallion pancake shops are a dime a dozen in Shanghai, where the doughy, oily snack is a popular breakfast item. But few pancake makers have earned as much renown as Wu Gencun, the owner of Ada.

(Read more: In Sichuan, a grandma’s spicy noodle pie is all the rage)

His shop has been featured on Chinese media outlets and Rick Stein’s BBC travel special in Shanghai. On the Chinese food review site Dianping, Wu’s shop has over 6,000 reviews and a meritable 3.5 out of 5 stars. Some travelers make Ada Scallion Pancakes a stop on their itinerary.

The pancakes at Ada Scallion Pancakes are a class apart.
The pancakes at Ada Scallion Pancakes are a class apart. / Photo: Benjamin Jie

Part of the hype comes from the limited supply. Wu still makes every pancake by hand. A batch of 20 takes about 40 minutes to make, and he only makes 300 pancakes a day. That means some customers go home empty-handed.

“No more today, no more,” Wu says as he waves off a handful of stragglers at the end of the day.

30 years of perfecting pancakes

Every day, Wu wakes up at 2 am to prepare the dough. He doesn’t open until 6 am, but he wants to give the dough enough time to rest.

A line usually starts forming at 5 am, and that’s when he starts to roll out the pancakes.

Wu Gencun rolls out scallion pancakes at his shop in Shanghai.
Wu Gencun rolls out scallion pancakes at his shop in Shanghai. / Photo: Benjamin Jie

For each pancake, he flattens the dough, spreads a roux made from lard and flour, wraps in scallion, and then rolls it up again to create layers. This gives scallion pancakes their fluffy texture.

“I don’t measure the flour, salt, and oil like others.”

Wu Gencun

“I don’t measure the flour, salt, and oil like others,” Wu says.

But what really sets his pancakes apart from others is his cooking technique. Most shops only pan-fry the dough. Wu adds a second step—baking the pancakes in an oven.

(Read more: This Hong Kong bakery has been making Chinese pastries the same way for over 30 years)

“Baking them removes the moisture from the oil, so it tastes oily but not greasy,” Wu says. “It must be crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.”

Unlike most shops, Wu bakes his pancakes in an oven.
Unlike most shops, Wu bakes his pancakes in an oven. / Photo: Benjamin Jie

Wu spent more than 30 years perfecting his recipe. He started learning from a friend’s father, who was skilled at making them, and eventually started his own business.

He still works 15 hours a day, mostly on his own, and rarely takes a break. The years of labor have evidently taken a toll on his body.

“It’s exhausting,” he says. “As I get older, my hunchback gets worse. It wasn’t as bad before.”

Wu says his hunchback has gotten worse because of the work.
Wu says his hunchback has gotten worse because of the work. / Photo: Benjamin Jie

The grind is likely why Wu has had trouble finding someone to take over the shop.

“You have to work a dozen hours a day. No one can stand it.”

Wu Gencun

“I wanted to teach my son, but he doesn’t want to do it,” he says. “I had a few apprentices, but they just couldn’t stand it. You have to work a dozen hours a day. No one can stand it.”

For now, Wu is focused on maintaining his business. “It’s hard to build a brand name but easy to destroy it. I cherish my business because my recognition was hard-earned with more than 30 years of commitment.”

Chef's PlateStreet foodShanghai

Credit

Producer and Videographer: Zhou Jie

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña