Who ever thought we’d have Nixon to thank for a good meal? His 1972 visit to China is credited with opening up a cultural exchange that included a wave of culinary adventure thanks to better availability of ingredients and more openness to what still seemed to some a too-exotic cuisine.
Started in the mid-19th century to feed railroad workers, hole-in-the-wall chow chows evolved into urban eateries by the early 1900s, especially in the coastal port cities of San Francisco and New York. But Chinese restaurants spread throughout the country, first mixing Cantonese fare with whatever would attract an American clientele. Soon, Mandarin cuisine—drawing on Szechuan, Hunan and other components—was added, and, long after the Nixon thaw, we’ve enjoyed all manner of Asian fusion. We’ve enjoyed it enough that Chinese restaurants outnumber McDonald’s franchises in the United States.
This is why Ala Shanghai is unusual. It calls attention to itself as a specialist in regional Chinese cooking, notwithstanding the melting-pot nature of what’s actually cooked in Shanghai. Don’t worry, you won’t miss out on lo mein and General Tso’s chicken, but you will find a thoughtfully assembled list of less-common items, beginning with five special-order entrées, among which are sea cucumber with shrimp seed (market priced), whole eel with garlic ($32) and eight-jewel duck ($34).
The rest of the entrées are priced below—usually well below—$20, and run an impressive gamut. Vegetarian pork chop with salt and pepper ($11) are breaded and fried seitan morsels, seasoned as noted, served with a decorative carrot shred and a side of rice. Brown rice suited my daughter Lily’s eschewal of refined wheat and grains, and it turned out to be as delicious as what it’s accompanying.
I’m guessing that vegetarian sausage with chili pepper ($11) is along the same seitanic lines, but the list of vegetable-based entrées also includes bamboo shoots with shrimp roe sauce ($11), Chinese cabbage with dried shrimp ($10), salty veggies with fava beans ($10) and much more. You can start with vegetarian mock duck ($5), on an appetizer list of cold items that also includes the enigmatic smoked fish ($7), sliced pork shoulder ($6), aster salad ($6) and one of my old favorites, cold sesame noodles ($4). I’m usually hesitant to order this dish because it’s so often slathered in sugary peanut butter, but this, as I’d hoped, was different: more savory, less sweet, well textured.
This I ordered during the second of two visits. The first was a lunchtime stop my daughter and I made a couple of weeks earlier, which prompted me to rave about the place so much that my wife insisted on joining us to check it out. Both times the food and service were top-notch.
It’s a modest-sized place that for many years was an Italian mainstay called Fannie’s. More recently, as Sakura, it featured teppanyaki tables. Now it sports only regular dining tables, some large enough for bigger groups, with a sectioned-off area to one side.
The weekday lunch menu presents more than 30 items, priced at $6 or $7 apiece, served with soup and rice, and including favorites like broccoli or eggplant with garlic sauce, kung po chicken, Szechuan style beef and shrimp with lobster sauce. Lily ordered smoked pork with spicy pepper and got a pleasingly spicy dish that wasn’t afraid of demonstrative flavors.
Back to the regular menu: Hot appetizers are listed as dim sum, and our order of steamed pork and leek dumplings ($4) was fabulous, a half-dozen of them in thin wrappers, the contents also not bashful about flavor.
For both of my visits I went to the Shanghai noodle soup page, where 18 varieties are priced from $4 to $8. Spicy eight-jewel noodle soup ($5) mixes finely diced bits of pork, tofu, mushroom, edamame, green pepper, bamboo, beef and (I believe) daikon, although I was hungry enough to neglect my note-taking. The jewels in question are served cold, alongside the bowl, and you mix them in or not at your discretion. They do call for practiced chopstick work. Let’s just say I’m not yet an expert and must remember to tuck my napkin strategically.
Szechuan-style beef noodle soup ($6) features curly, tender meat slices afloat in the tureen, which went well with the pad Thai noodles I asked for (other choices are lo mein, rice cake, rice noodle and vermicelli).
Susan, the chicken fiend, ordered her poultry in the form of rainbow shredded chicken ($11), which gets much of its extra color from shredded carrots and green peppers. A delicate flavor informed the dish, which is probably all the bird really had to offer.
The menu goes on and on. Casseroles large enough to serve four ($12-$15) are offered, such as lion’s head (which is metaphorical, as you’ll find pork meatballs within) and fish head (which is not). There’s a hot pot of chicken with chestnuts ($15), an $18 stir-fry of lamb or crab, two pages of seafood items like prawns with pine nuts ($14), clams with black bean sauce ($12) and preparations of fish belly, tail or head. All this in addition to what you’re used to seeing on a Chinese menu.
You’ll see a maneki neko—that’s a welcoming cat—as you enter, offering a promise that’s more than fulfilled. Ala Shanghai is inventive and economical, which satisfies two of my top dining-out needs.