I scoured food blogs and newspaper features, noting the dishes and restaurants that made me drool. I wrote down their addresses and their hours. I drew circles around sections of my printed out subway map and plotted out walking directions. I showed the characters for each dish to my Mandarin speaking partner and had him confirm he could pronounce each one.
Visions of myself flitting freely from place to place, one hand filled with hairy crab dumplings, the other filled with pork mooncakes, with a baggie of tofu soup swinging from my arm and the city's best egg custard in my mouth filled my brain as I had the breath squished out of me on the subway.
China had other plans.
I skipped up to the hairy crab dumpling place, whose sign faithfully listed the characters I'd written down. There was even a picture of the dumplings - orange roe brightly decorating the swirled noodly baskets. But no: "We don't have any," barked the man behind the counter.
You don't have any of your flagship dish? Well, OK. No need to apologize or explain why, I guess!
Only slightly daunted, we set off for the egg custard place. Yum yum, giant Portuguese style egg tarts, the likes of which Shanghainese bloggers can't stop raving about! Brilliant yellow-orange custard with spots of brown where the sugar has caramelized!
Except the address was a clothes store.
Moving slightly more warily now, we approached the pork mooncake window, which wasn't too far. In fact, we could see the line spiraling out into the street from a few blocks away. Happy customers darted off holding baggies full of steaming, fresh pork mooncakes as the people who'd been in line right behind them...
...just kidding, there aren't any lines in China. But the people who'd been elbowing and squirming and shouting and pressing their way up to the window managed to laboriously obtain their own baggies of gold.
I joined the thrum. My height gave me an advantage; I watched the buns, hot and fresh on a silver try, get stuffed into bags and handed off. I threw elbows with the best of them. I slowly inched closer to the front. And when I got there...
They had just sold the last bun of the day. "No, no, no more," the lady behind the counter said brusquely, waving both her hands in front of her face like she was shooing away flies. "Tomorrow," she added when pressed, like this was a viable solution, like we hadn't taken three subway lines and a two hour meandering walk to get there already.
It was a long, long way to the place that was meant to sell tofu flower soup, and it was something of a torturous walk. Not having eaten anything all day, we were slogging along at a glacial pace - even more glacial than everyone else's normal 100 degree walking speed. (I stubbornly insisted on eating only what was on my list, which turned out to be very stupid.)
The tofu flower place, however, existed! And it was open! And it had tofu flower soup on the menu! Finally - delicate dried shrimp sprinkled over curls of curdled soy, pickled radishes forming the flowers on the top!
Nope. A nightmare of glass noodles, MSG, and sweet soy.
It's a good thing I learned these paired lessons on only my second day in China:
Never expect to find what you're looking for. If you see something good in front of your face, seize it.