Shanghai Cafe Deluxe
100 Mott Street, New York NY 10013 (between Canal and Hester; map); 212-966-3988
Service: Inattentive and pretty rude
Setting: 1970's airport lounge style
Must-Haves: Steamed Tiny Buns, Fried Lo Mein, Pork Shoulder
Cost:$5 to $13 per dish
I'm about 10% of the way into a quest to find the best Xiao Long Bao—the soup-filled dumplings from Shanghai—in Manhattan. It's a tough but rewarding job that involves plenty of pork, hand-stretched pastry, and soup-stained clothes. The fact that our office is right in the middle of Chinatown makes things a bit easier, and indeed, I managed to accidentally discover what might be one of the top contenders during the middle of a torrential downpour a couple weeks ago.
Chichi Wang, my wife, and I ducked into Shanghai Cafe Deluxe on Mott Street just as it started to pour and were pleasantly surprised by the duo of ladies meticulously hand-forming stretchy dumpling wrappers around a moist-looking filling, rapidly pleating them into the familiar purse shape of soup dumplings. That the dumplings were being formed fresh to order was a good sign.
As inexpensive Chinese restaurants go, this one's got decent decor and seating. If you're into multicolored neon and styling that makes you feel like your in an airport lounge from the '70s, you'll really dig it. Service is brusque and pretty inattentive—we had to physically raise our hands to get our waiter's attention, and dishes seem to emerge from the hot kitchen in the back and steam kitchen in the front in random order. You may be long finished with your main dishes before your cold appetizers or dumplings arrive.
No matter. We were there for the food.
The extensive cold dish selection features tasty and well-executed classics like Wine Chicken ($4.95), crunchy and briny sesame-scented Jellyfish ($6.95), salty Seaweed Salad ($4.95), and a cartilaginous strips of sliced Pig Ear ($4.95). The latter is well seasoned with soy sauce, packed into a terrine, then cut into paper-thin slices that have a pleasantly crunchy-chewy texture. My suggestion: opt for the mix-and-match special deals, which lets you pick between two and five cold appetizers for a discount rate of $7.95 to $18.95 for the lot of them.
Dumplings of all shapes, sizes, and makes form the first section of the menu here, and all of them were good—as they should be in a proper Shanghainese joint. The Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings, $4.95) are some of the best I've had in Chinatown, and certainly loads better than the ones at Joe's, which people line up for. The filling borders on too sweet for me (though for Chichi it wasn't sweet enough), but the juicy broth is savory and intense and the wrappers have a properly pliant and stretchy texture. You'll definitely want to lean way over when you bite into one—the copious juice has a tendency to burst and dribble.
Shanghai Style Wontons ($4.95) come in two versions. The deep fried come out hot and crisp, while the wonton soup comes in a savory broth with a tangle of seaweed. It reminds me a lot of a Japanese-style seaweed broth. The wontons themselves are generously stuffed with a sweet pork mixture.
Of all the dumplings, the only moderate failure were the fried version of the Tiny Pork Buns ($4.95). The great dumpling wrappers here take well to a stint in the wok, crisping up nicely on the bottom, but we wished they were a little more consistent: Some were perfectly browned while others were pale and a bit dry.
Beyond the dumplings, other pastry-based items range from excellent to abysmal. The Shanghai Pan Fried Noodles ($8.95) fall firmly into the first category. Available in pork, chicken, or shrimp versions, they've got an excellent, chewy al dente texture with some heavy smokiness imparted by a properly seasoned and wielded wok. The same can't be said of the Braised Noodles Shanghai Style ($8.95), which are cooked to the point of complete mushiness. Perhaps this is how it's really done in Shanghai, but it didn't suit our palates. This one sat around until the end of the meal.
For a heartier, chewier alternative to noodles, you could opt instead for Rice Cake ($6.95 to $9.95). Nice and smoky like the lo mein, the rice cakes are tender with a few nice crisp edges to contrast with their signature chewiness. The version with black mushrooms was deeply savory and aromatic.
Moving onto main courses, Pork Shoulder in Brown Sauce ($13.95) has got to be one of the best dollar-per-meat deals in the city. It's a massive cross-section of pork shoulder braised until fork-tender, smothered in a savory brown gravy with a few token heads of baby bok choy. Chichi found it to be a tad too dry for her taste, but I enjoyed the fattier bits. One of these days, I'm going to do an investigative piece on the Chinatown economy to discover how the heck their meat is so cheap. (There's some extreme cognitive dissonance going on in my head between the "this tastes delicious" part and the "I shouldn't eat poorly raised animals" bit.)
Farm-raised tilapia, unfortunately, has become the norm in Chinese restaurants these days. I personally can't stand the stuff, with its muddy-tasting flesh (farm-raised catfish are even worse). But if you can get past that flavor (it seems not to bother many people), the Sliced Fish with Chives ($15.95) is a well-executed plate of food. Tender and moist with plenty of aromatic chives, it was one of the lighter things we tasted.
There are several casserole-based dishes that are definitely not something you'll find on your typical Chinese-American menu. Chicken with Chestnut in Pot ($13.95) has got tender but slightly dry chunks of chicken swimming in a gingery brown gravy with whole sweet chestnuts. (The same gravy that does justice to pork shoulder.) It's a better option than the Pork Ball with Vegetable Casserole ($11.95). Though it was a massive bowl of food—easily enough to stuff four—the meatballs had an unsettlingly gritty texture.
Desserts don't feature heavily in Chinese menus, but Shanghai cuisine is an exception. Asides from plenty of red bean-flavored options, you'll also find a few sticky rice-in-syrup choices. The Eight Jewel version ($5.95) comes with candied fruits and nuts. It'll probably be too sweet and mushy for Western palates (I couldn't handle more than a bite), but Chichi dug right in.
The meal was pretty up and down, but if soup dumplings are your thing (and shouldn't they be everyone's?), you could do far worse than to order a few steamers-ful here.
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