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Dec 15, 2006 01:27 AM

A quick take on Shanghai House

When my SIL invited me to attend her husband's swearing-in as a US Citizen today and asked me for suggestions for lunch afterward, it gave me an early opportunity to check out the newly opened Shanghai House restaurant on Balboa with a couple of representatives from my Shanghai contingent in tow.

There was no doubt about Shanghai House's truly Shanghainese identity, with the server, the other parties there at early lunchtime, and two-thirds of my own party speaking Shanghainese (and me with my usual Yangjingbang). The menu, too, was rock-ribbed Shanghainese cuisine in its offerings, even if some of the "rice" dishes turned out to be somewhat eccentric home-style renditions. Unfortunately, some of the Shanghai "dim sum" items are only offered on weekends (which isn't made clear in the menu).

We ordered xiaolong bao; one cold dish (salted duck); a couple of "rice" dishes, Shanghai classic "meicai kourou" (steamed pork belly with pickled vegetables) and a tofu and seafood clay pot; and one soup, also a Shanghai classic, fried tofu with bean thread noodles.

I was able to approach the xiaolong bao with freshly calibrated taste receptors, having returned from Shanghai just two days ago, and am happy to report that they were very good. Only an artlessness in the wrapping (they looked slightly misshapen) and a slight lack of flavor depth in the broth kept them from being the equal of Shanghai Dumpling King's and Oakland's Shanghai Xiao Chi's versions, but at $4.95 for 10 I'm willing to cut them a little slack. I made do with worse at several venues in Shanghai. They also made me vow to return on the weekend to try some of the other Shanghinese brunch items.

The other dishes were a mixed bag. The salty duck was tasty and lean, but had the appearance of being either too old or suffering from refrigerator burn, showing some discoloration and dryness. The pork belly/mei cai was marred by a too-sweet red sauce, but otherwise good. The tofu and seafood hot pot had fried tofu instead of the expected fresh tofu, and also suffered from a confusion of too many ingredients in it. It was almost as if all the ingredients one might toss into seafood hot-pot in the course of a leisurely hot pot dinner were crammed into a modest clay pot. This is not to say that there was anything leftover-ish about the contents; most of the ingredients appeared to be fresh and cooked just the right amount. If you are a seafood nut, this is the Chinese Cioppino for you.

The xifen/you doufu soup was the most peculiar of all. It came with an opaque brown broth, though neither I nor the two Shanghainese have ever seen this soup before with anything but a clear broth. It was savory enough, but a bit jarring visually.

An earlier discussion of Shanghai House is in this thread:

Shanghai House
3641 Balboa Street
San Francisco, CA 94121

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  1. I went back to Shanghai House (Jia Jia Fu) at lunchtime today, intending to try some of the Shanghainese brunchie stuff only available on weekends. Nonetheless, I couldn't resist another shot at the xiaolong bao. To accompany it I ordered a couple more of my favorites, savory soy milk (available only on weekends) and green onion pancakes (available daily).

    If anything, the xiaolong bao tasted even better than on my initial visit, probably because I brought more of a hunger with me, and were prettier, wrapped more carefully.

    The savory soy milk (yan doujiang) turne about to be as good as I've had in SF since the early days of Fountain Court, better than Shanghai Dumpling King's version (good in its own right). It was properly sassy, and properly constructed, down to the inclusion of brine shrimp, which are often omitted. (Do they think those teeny little eyes are going to scare anybody?)

    The green onion pancakes (cong you bing) made it three for three. I alsway cross my fingers when ordering this, because there are so many approaches to making it and with many different results, but Shanghai House's version was much to my liking: thick, well-browned and crunchy on the outside and soft and well-seeed with spring onion tops inside.

    I talked to the server, who happened to be the daughter of the proprietor. Although she spoke English like an ABC, she had no problem understanding my little Shanghainese. She confirmed that it was a family operation, and said that it was dad who did all the cooking. The other server may have been the mom.

    I'll reserve judgement on the regular lunch and dinner fare; our limited sampling of cold apps and rice dishes on Thursday found them to be a hit and miss proposition. But thanks to today's "hat trick" (sorry for that, but the Hockey Haven bar is only three doors up the street from Shanghai House) I have a new go-to place for Shagnhainese eye-openers. If only Shanghai House weren't such a damned long bus ride away from me!

    Bunrab will want to know they have a nice clean bathroom, too.

    1. After a movie at the Balboa Theater last night, we walked across the street for dinner at Shanghai House for XLB, braised fish in wine sauce, and a claypot of salted pork and vegetable rice. The pork filling in the XLB was flavorful but no soup in the dumplings, the fish fillets were tender and we finished all of the wine sauce, not a spoonful remaining; the slices of salted pork were smoked ham atop the bok choy rice with its crusty bottom in the claypot ... Total for dinner $23.95+tip. Good food. Good value. - "Dinner and a Movie" - it's a good thing for the neighborhood.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Cynsa

        We too were there last night!

        When we arrived around 6 the place was nearly empty so I was concerned they might not make it; by the time we left they were almost full but not overwhelmed, so I think they'll be just fine business-wise.

        When we sat down were were given generic chinese restaurant menus with entrees promising deep fried day-glo red or yellow things, but my BF's Shanghainese mom piped up and asked if there was a menu with Shanghainese food. Our original menues were whisked away and replaced with a more tempting set of offerings, all translated into english if not with obvious names. XLB were something like small shanghai style dumplings (#1) and the Lion's Head was braised meat balls in gravy or something similar.

        We too had the XLB and braised fish in wine sauce. XLB had good flavor but no soup inside; for $5 we can't complain. The wrappers were on the thick side but had good texture and delicate pleats. The braised fish was wonderful, with a perfect clean white fish flavor and the perfect texture where it was very tender but didn't fall appart when we picked it up with the chopsticks.

        Lion's head meatballs were very flavorful, and fairly tender but not the airy meatballs my BF's mom looks for in her ideal version. The "gravy" with them was wonderful, and we spooned it off our plates as best we could.

        A plate of perfectly marinated perfectly cooked shrimp started us off, all tasting beautifully fresh and all well-deveined. Nicely balanced between the shrimp flavor and the vinegar, wine, and sweet flavors in the sauce.

        Glutinous noodles were quite good. I haven't had these before so I can't compare them to other places, but these oblong disks of glutinous dough seemed cooked well (they weren't too soft), and they had great wok ha from a quick toss in the pan.

        The eel dish was nice, but the mass of small eels were a bit overwhelmed by the sauce; presentation was beautiful with a nest of saucy eels with shreds of something in the chive/leek family nestled in the middle.

        We were originally not going to have dessert, but then when my BF's mom asked if they had anything with black sesame a dumpling soup was recommended. I don't know what it's called or if it was on the menu, but it was great. It had a few small round balls of toasted sesame mochi floating in a "soup" of what tasted like lychee syrup, water, rice, and osmanthus blossoms. The sesame tasted home-toasted, and not overly sweet inside the dumplings. The osmanthus was a wonderful touch, and added to the sweetness enough that I could tell what was a very sweet tasting dish wasn't really loaded with sugar.

        The table next to us had fake goose, which last night was a bit crispy on the edges from frying instead of a cold version. They also had green onion pancakes, but I don't know how those were. After my BF's mom mentioned we don't like greasy crisp fried noodles, we were steered away from things like the green onion pancakes. All the sauces in our dishes including the lion's head meatballs were nearly greaseless with just small specs of oil left on our plates, but flavor didn't suffer. The chef here definitely has a light and skillful hand, and his wife has a nice calm conversational attitude in the front of the house.

        Tea smoked duck and hand-cut noodles looked tempting, but we already had more than enough benchmark classics to order before branching out on this visit.

        1. re: SteveG

          Your post and the one above are worrisome. I went to Shanghai House for the 3rd time a week ago yesterday, and also found the XLB to be soupless and the skins too thick. I figured that papa (the head cook) was either having a day off or an off day, because the first two times the XLB were close to perfect, well souped and with delicate skins. The congyou bing (onion pancakes) were also too heavily sodden with oil. Maybe with the growing business, he turned over the xiao chi duties to someone else to concentrate on the main dishes himself. (A young woman server had told me earlier that her father cooked "everything" himself.) I'm happy to see them succeed, but I'd hate to see a source for excellent XLB bite go by the wayside.

          FWIW, the savory doujiang was still very good on my last visit, in case anyone is looking for that (as I always am).

      2. A quick recap of my visit last week:

        XLB was not oily. Not enough broth.
        The skin was almost too firm - no suspense during chopsticks-to-spoon transfer! Tasty.

        Five spice smoked fish.
        Excellent. Again, not greasy, a little too plump for a smoked dish, but you'd love it anyway.

        Tea smoked duck.
        Crispy AND juicy. Rich fatty skin, lots of meat. Pointy mitten-shaped white bread to make duck sandwiches out of. Pillowy soft goodness. I didn't make sandwiches, I just had them separately. I even used a little to sop up the five spice sauce on the fish dish.