Troy Schenectady Road, Latham, 783-8188. Serving 11-10 Mon-Sat,
11-9:30 Sun. Lunch menu 11-3:30 Mon-Fri. AE, D, MC, V.
price range: $4 (scallion noodle soup) to $20 (scallops
with bok choy)
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
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
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.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
digging in as much as you are in order to eat
well while money is scarce. So I thought I’d share
some tips and techniques, and will do so over
four weeks at the Arts Center of the Capital
Region in Troy, with a class called Cooking
for the New Economy. Make your shopping trips
more efficient and plan menus without waste. Can
I cook anywhere as well as those I criticize?
Find out and enjoy some (putatively) tasty food
over the course of four Mondays (Jan. 24-Feb.
14) from 6 to 9 PM. More info at artscenteronline.org.
. . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.