The salted pork spareribs at Shanghai Chinese Restaurant (9116 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-988-7288) are fried in a wok with garlic and red chiles and served simply, on a platter with steamed rice on the side. The first bite reminds my dining companion of fried chicken, but "better." She is right — the outside of the pork rib is crispy, and the inside is juicy. The little bubbles of pork fat crunch and burst when you bite into them, making you want to suck the pork bone when all the meat is gone.
After taking a few bites of the sizzling hot pork nibblets, I am faced with the choice of condiments on the table. There is the red and black oily concoction in the typical little jar with the spoon sticking out of the lid. I start to spoon it out, and it makes crunchy noises from the charred chiles at the bottom. I try a little, and it doesn't do much for the ribs, which are already perfect. After my third or fourth rib, I've sampled the arsenal of condiments and settled on Sriracha, the spicy Thai red pepper condiment made in California that has become the standard at any Asian restaurant — Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, whatever. The guys I work with put it on tacos and pizza. It's like the new ketchup.
The menu has more than 200 choices, with everything from frog legs and pigs feet to stir-fried duck tongues. Rather than trying to be the next Andrew Zimmern and sample a bunch of dishes just because they sound shocking, I've decided to stick to the "tried and true" and keep it simple.
The next dish to go from the wok to our table is some classic-style egg rolls and a brisket-and-noodle soup. My tablemate, who's from the area, says, "Now these are Alief-style egg rolls, not those puny little rice paper rolls you get in Montrose." I laugh and dip the egg roll into the sauce it came with, which is not what I expected. While it looks sweet and spicy, it tastes like aquarium water thickened with cornstarch. Back to the Sriracha with this one.
The brisket soup is out of this world. The meat is fatty and still a little chewy, a nice departure from what I am used to eating when I have brisket out — the fork-tender and gummy variety. The chewy texture goes perfectly with the soft pork dumplings in the soup. Floating in the flavorful broth with the brisket and the dumplings are some bright green mustard greens, tender and fresh. The whole dish rocks in its simplicity.
I wanted to try a duck dish, but just don't have the room for a roasted half duck, so I ask our server for some roasted duck lo mein. The lo mein noodles taste so fresh, I swear they're homemade. They're sticky, and you can pull them out of the bowl with your wooden chopsticks upwards of three feet! This time the tasty broth with scallions floating in it comes on the side. The roasted duck is cooked perfectly; it's juicy, a little chewy, but fresh and not dry. The fat is still sticking to the meat, and I decide to take it to go and eat it later, when I have more room in my gullet. Say, in about half an hour.
Shanghai Restaurant is BYOB, but there is a little Asian store next to it called the Welcome Market that sells a small quantity of cold beer, including the all-popular Tsingtao, which is like Chinese Heineken. I stopped off there first and grabbed a six-pack. The place was super old-school, and I practically got knocked down by a perhaps-93-year-old Asian lady whose cart was full of raw vegetables as she jostled for a position in line at the checkout.
As we're finishing lunch, the owner and some cooks sit down to eat, talking and laughing. I have a huge respect for people who work in kitchens like this, ones that serve 200 menu items, with a list of ingredients that must read like a Chinese food dictionary. I've seen these cooks work, and it is impressive: lightning-fast and lightning-hot. I've spent the last 20 years in kitchens, and I couldn't hold a candle to these chefs.
Shanghai Restaurant does an amazing job of serving both Americanized dishes like sweet and sour pork and chicken-fried rice and traditional Shanghainese dishes like goat hot pot or pork blood with dried shrimp. Honestly, whether it's cheesy, watered-down dishes that appeal to American palates or hardcore, authentic Chinese dishes, as long as it tastes good, who cares?
My second visit to Shanghai Chinese Restaurant is for a late dinner with more Tsingtao and some friends. This time, the owner's son is our server, and he's totally laid-back and really helpful with explaining the specials, which are written in Chinese on a dry erase board. He even brings us a pot of ice from the kitchen for our beer. It's almost closing time, and the owner and some other fellows are eating and drinking Miller Lites at the same table they sat at when I had lunch here. Between the Chinese swan paintings and the plastic chrysanthemums, the air is filled with drunken Chinese chatter.
I try more of the dumplings in soup and am instantly glad I did. I think it's the best dish of my two visits. They actually call it wonton soup, but it comes with pork and shrimp dumplings in a savory broth with more of the tender mustard greens. I also order the shrimp-and-pork-fried rice. The rice is light and fluffy, and there are just enough shrimp to get one or two in each bite. But the best part of the fried rice is the sweet and crispy diced pork mixed in with it. My dining companions go with the cashew chicken and the General Tso's chicken.
Although it isn't what I would've ordered, when I taste my tablemates' General Tso's chicken, it confirms my opinion of Shanghai Restaurant: that it serves really amazing Chinese food for the $7.99 lunch-special-with-an-egg roll-and-sweet-and-sour-soup crowd as well as the I-just-got-back-from-Beijing-and-I-know-"real"-Shanghai-cuisine tool bags.
Shanghai Chinese Restaurant is run by a tight-knit family serving up some of the best Chinese food I have had in Houston. And they sure know how to treat pork. I ask our waiter if he knows a good place with cheap beer for karaoke. He's kinda young and the cheap-beer comment maybe throws him off, but he comes back with a recommendation for a club that's just placed a delivery order with the restaurant. "They charge by the hour for a private room," he confides, "but you can smoke inside."
Not exactly what I was thinking, but you know what they say: Any Chinese restaurant that delivers to a karaoke bar has got to be good.
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