Shanghainese, If You Please
"Pork with preserved vegetables" sounds boring. But Jay Francis kept tapping on this item on the menu at Shanghai Cuisine and insisting that I try it. A friend of his from China had recommended the restaurant and the dish, so we ordered it. We also ordered something called "bean seedlings" and some "mustard greens with snow soybeans."
The generic-sounding pork turned out to be a big, luscious square of pork belly, slow-roasted until the fat melted in your mouth. The meat was cut into neat bite-sized square wafers and topped with a brown sauce seasoned with pungent pickled mustard greens. It was one of the best pork belly dishes I've had in Houston.
The bean seedlings turned out to be lightly cooked snow pea shoots in garlic, one of my favorite Asian vegetables. "Snow soybeans" were actually edamame in a wild vegetable stew with chopped mustard greens and a delightful garlic sauce.
The deep-fried Shanghai spring rolls were skinny, greasy and boring. The stir-fry celery with lily and pine nuts turned out to be a nine-dollar plate of celery slices. And the cold tofu in Shanghai sauce came with lots of gelatinous thousand-year-old eggs that the tofu-lover at the table couldn't choke down. You win some, you lose some, right?
I took a lot of leftovers home, and I discovered that snow pea shoots in garlic sauce taste wonderful cold. So do mustard greens and edamame. But cold pork belly eaten cold tastes like raw bacon. You can't heat it in the microwave either — the fat gets all rubbery.
On my second visit to Shanghai Cuisine, I played it safe and stuck with noodle dishes. Stir-fried noodles with chicken was the best of the lot. The noodles were stained brown by the soy sauce and held plenty of chicken and vegetables in a pleasantly oily nest. The beef noodle soup featured chewy fresh noodles and a deep brown broth — it was excellent. But the pork rib noodle soup had four watery pork ribs, a pile of noodles and a broth that looked and tasted like dishwater.
I stopped by another time to try one of the incredibly cheap lunch specials — everything is $4.88. When I observed to our waitress, Stella, that Shanghai's cuisine wasn't spicy, she took it as a challenge.
"Shanghainese like spicy dishes too," she said. Shanghainese is what people from Shanghai call themselves, she said — the most famous Shanghainese celebrity in Houston is Yao Ming.
So I asked Stella to pick a spicy item for me. She chose the first item on the menu, "Spicy Fish Fillet (sic)."
The dish that came to the table had a few tilapia medallions covered with dried red peppers and slices of fresh jalapeño. There were literally more red and green peppers than white fish. The bottom of the plate was covered with bright orange oil. I wondered if they had cooked the fish and pepper in chile oil, just to make sure it was spicy enough.
I took another look at Shanghai Cuisine's menu and shook my head in wonder. "888" is a lucky number in Chinese numerology, and there are some 30 items on the menu priced at $8.88 — everything from seafood hot pot to sliced celery is the same price. Most of the rest are $4.88.
The food can be remarkable, or it can be boring. But the translations are so horrible, you just can't predict what you're going to get.
On my last visit to Shanghai Cuisine, I met Jay Francis and his friend Roy Wang for lunch. Roy read the Chinese menu and translated for us. He cleared up several mysteries. The ingredient listed as "gluten" on the menu was actually several different noodle-like substances.
The one called "House special gluten" looked like a brown cellulose sponge cut into squares and topped with day lily buds, black fungus and a slightly sweet soy-based sauce. I loved the funky texture of that one.
Gluten with mustard greens looked like thick white slices from an egg-shaped noodle ball tossed with chopped greens in vinaigrette. It tasted like a rubbery rice noodle disk salad. The "gluten with black mushrooms in hot pot" was a mushroom soup with yellow blobs of starch that looked like limp slugs floating around in it. They weren't easy to grab with the shiny lacquered chopsticks, but when you got hold of one, it tasted like a slimy mass of starch.
Roy also ordered us a plate of Shanghai shrimp — a plate of delicate, barely cooked white shrimp with edamame beans in a light cornstarch-thickened shrimp sauce. Jay got a plate of spicy fried chicken that was loaded with dried chiles and sprinkled with little red-skinned peanuts. He impressed us all by eating some of the chicken pieces Chinese-style, bones and all.
When I thanked Roy for the translations and asked for the spelling of his name, he said, "Everybody calls me Roy, but my real Chinese name is Pei. My wife's name is Wei. One time, we got our photo taken standing in front of a Pei Wei Diner. We sent the picture back home and told all our friends we bought a restaurant."
"How did you like Pei Wei's food?" I asked.
"I've never tried it," he said. Roy told me that as far as he knew, Shanghai Cuisine was the first Shanghai-style restaurant in Houston. But it's no longer the only one — another Shanghai-style Chinese restaurant recently opened right across the street.
This kind of cooking became a favorite late in his life, he said. "When I was younger, I loved spicy Chinese food," Roy told me. "But my stomach can't take it anymore." It's easy to skip the spicy stuff in a Shanghai Chinese restaurant. And thanks to the fermented vegetables, the heavy garlic, and lots of mushrooms and flower buds, the food still manages to be bold-flavored without the fiery chile peppers.
Now that Roy has helped me figure out the menu, I can't wait to go back and try some of the salt-and-pepper seafood dishes and the weird oversize broad beans. I'll also be ordering some more of that awesome pork belly. And this time, there won't be any leftovers.
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