Happy New Year, everyone! Above are the famous "xiao long bao" or "XLB" that entice foodies from near and far to seek the most delicate and flavorful of the soup-filled dumplings. XLB are a specialty of Shanghai cuisine, and mediocre dumplings are often heavy with a thick skin/wrapper and bland filling. XLB that are done well are savory pillows of ground pork (you can also get it with crab, but I'm a purist and prefer just the pork), with a thin but sturdy wrapper enveloping the filling with a couple teaspoons of brothy, rich soup. These particular XLB are from Shanghai Restaurant in San Gabriel. On the menu, they are simply called "special pork steamed buns."
My parents introduced us to this restaurant about four months ago. The restaurant formerly occupied a smaller, second-story location at what I call the "Great Mall of China," which is better known as the Focus Plaza on Valley and Del Mar. The restaurant became so successful that they moved two doors down to a larger restaurant space. The new space accommodates about 2 to 3 times as many guests, with room for private parties. Before I found Shanghai Restaurant, Mr. DG and I would most often visit Mei Long Village with my parents for our Shanghai food fix. When the owner is working, the food at Mei Long is usually done well. When the owner is not working, the food tends to suffer, including the XLB.
In my own opinion, I have to say that Shanghai Restaurant's dumplings are just a little inferior to Mei Long Village (on a good day). They aren't terrible, but Mei Long's XLB tend to have a more delicate wrapper and more flavorful filling than Shanghai.
We started our meal at Shanghai Restaurant with two cold dishes: a "vegetarian duck" dish made of wheat gluten, with shiitake mushrooms and a sweet and salty flavor; and the other was pork in jelly that reminds me of something akin to head cheese. Head cheese isn't the most poetic description, I realize. The chunks of pork are encased in jelly and what appears to be part of the pig's skin. Usually, this would freak me out a bit, but since I grew up eating this dish, I have to say I really enjoy it, suspect parts and all. Dipped in Chinese black vinegar and eaten with shredded ginger, the pork jelly is savory, acidic and aromatic all at once. The vegetarian duck is made of wheat gluten and has a spongy, but not unpleasant texture. It is a sweet and salty dish, accented by the firm shiitake mushrooms, bean curd sheets and gingko nuts.
Above is the star of the show (for me), described on the menu as "Salty Meat and Vegetables with Rice." It's rice cooked in an earthenware pot with bites of ham and green vegetable. The vegetable reminds me of bok choy in texture. This dish is delicious, even though it's a bit oily. The saltiness of the ham flavors and permeates the rice and vegetable, creating a appetite-stirring aroma. The best part of the dish, for me, is the crunchy, darkened bits of rice that are stuck to the bottom and sides of the pot. The crunchy little nuggets are positively addictive.
I specifically request an all-vegetable dish when dining out with my parents so I can feel like I got a little bit of fiber with my meal. Otherwise, it'd just be an all-protein-fest. We ordered the sauteed water spinach with garlic, and it was crunchy, garlicky and had good "wok hay" or "breath of the wok." Water spinach does not get soft when cooked, unlike "regular" spinach. The hollow stems of the water spinach stay crisp. The mixed delights in casserole was a bit bland. I've had this at other restaurants, and the broth should be well-seasoned. This one was not, unfortunately. The mixed delights included napa cabbage, cellophane noodles, squid, shrimp and pork meatballs. I would not order this again at Shanghai Restaurant, as there are other tastier dishes to be enjoyed.
Gosh, it seems like we ate like pigs at this meal, doesn't it? There were only five of us but we had nine dishes. Wow. I still have two dishes and the dessert to describe!
The spareribs in sweet vinegar sauce were sticky, vinegary fried bits. The flavor was good, but there was too much bone and too little meat for my and Mr. DG's tastes. I'd say it was about 80% bone, which is great if you like to gnaw (like my mom). Otherwise, this was mostly a tangy, tasty sauce on bits of battered bones. The braised tofu in spicy brown sauce was garnished with whole edamame (soybeans) and wood ear mushrooms. Wood ear mushrooms are thin, almost cartilaginous fungi. They give a crunchy, springy texture to dishes; they do not impart much flavor of their own. I could have taken a bit more heat in the "spicy brown sauce," but it was a decent dish overall, and I enjoyed mixing the sauce into my bowl of jasmine rice.
For dessert, we enjoyed "tang yuan" filled with black sesame paste in fermented rice and wine soup. The yellow bits are dried sweet osmanthus flower. Visually, this might be a bit dull, or even strange-looking. Truthfully, I wasn't that keen on this dish when I was a kid. But as an adult, I now appreciate this Chinese dessert. The soup is served hot, and the tang yuan are made of glutinous rice flour, which makes them slightly chewy. The black sesame filling is nutty, contrasting with the sweet (but not overly so) wine soup. This dessert needs to be experienced in person to fully appreciate the floral notes of its ingredients. If you'd like to try making this yourself, check out Rasa Malaysia's recipe and photos.
140 W. Valley Blvd., #212
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Open 7 days a week: 11 AM - 10 PM
Visa and MC accepted (min. charge $20)
Lunch specials: M-F 11 AM - 5 PM
$4.50 - $6.95, includes steamed rice and soup of the day
Photos taken with the Dishy Goodness camera phone