The Vegetarian Option: Shanghai Café
100 Mott Street, New York NY 10013 (between Canal and Hester St; map); 212-966-3988
Veggie Options: Too many to count
Cost: Starters $2-7, vegetarian mains $5-10
Though I've always loved New York's Chinatown—the food carts and fish markets, bakeries and restaurants—eating in the neighborhood can be enough to make an unfamiliar vegetarian a little wary. Still, choose your destination wisely, and it's definitely possible to have a vegetarian meal in Chinatown fashion.
Shanghai Café is often packed with people who flock here for soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) and other Shanghainese dishes. Unlike my experience with some other restaurants, non-Chinese people won't be handed a fork and a menu that's been whittled down to lo mein, fried rice, and General Gao's. Instead the menu is both diverse and straightforward, and you're assumed to be chopstick-proficient unless proven otherwise.
Since dumplings are the big draw, we felt obligated to order the Steamed Vegetable Dumplings ($4.95). Although I expected them to pale in comparison to the popular soup dumplings (which are not at all vegetarian), I was surprised to find that they are perfectly delicious in their own right. The skin is slightly thicker and chewier, and the rich blend of mixed vegetables is surprisingly flavorful without succumbing to mushy vegetable filling syndrome.
The Scallion Pancakes ($2.25) suffered from a bit too much grease and not enough scallion, but (though I hate to admit it) it was delicious, delicious grease. They were promptly scarfed down by our table: there's nothing like a well-lubricated stomach.
The Vegetarian Mock Duck ($5.95) is a cold dish made with bean curd. While it doesn't resemble duck in the slightest, it does pack a lot of umami flavor. Otherwise it was a bit lacking in excitement—next time I'd probably order another round of dumplings instead.
I got a delightful surprise when I nabbed a water chestnut off my friend's plate, only to discover that it was chewy and glutinous. The dish was Rice Cakes with Black Mushroom ($6.95), and the water chestnut-imposters were starchy, springy disks made of rice flour; this dish was definitely a new favorite.
We had our eye on two vegetable dishes that were both listed as "(with meat)" on the menu, Sautéed Dry String Beans ($8.95) and Eggplant with Garlic Sauce ($7.95), but I had no problem requesting that they be made completely vegetarian. Both arrived meat-free, and no one would have noticed that they were supposed to have any meat in the first place.
The thick pieces of eggplant came in a tangy sauce with just a hint of spiciness. The sweet-sour-spicy combination packs a lot of flavor into the dish, and the meaty eggplant gave the dish more substance than your typical plate of vegetables.
The dry-fried string beans were cooked to the perfect doneness but were also a bit too slick with grease. On its own it didn't quite stand up to some of the other dishes, but if you're sharing with lots of people then it's not a bad addition to the mix.
By the end of your meal you should find that your belly is full and the check is small, which certainly adds to the appeal. If you were lucky (or strategy-minded) enough to not be completely stuffed, I highly recommend making a beeline down Mott Street to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, where you can get a scoop of the best ginger ice cream I've ever tried.