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Jun 22, 2008 09:16 PM

Sunny Shanghai Mini-lunch report

I finally hightailed it down to Sunny Shanghai to check out some traditional Shanghainese "small eats" for lunch today. It's easily accessible from CalTrain (10-minute walk) and the geezer fare is only a buck each way, so I'm asking myself what took me so long.

It's a homey place in a jerrybuilt-looking building, and except for the two-top I managed to snag, was full at 12:30 PM, with me the only non-Asian present. The waitress (owner/partner?) was Shanghainese which eased communication, because Shanghainese is the only Chinese dialect I can articulate competently, even though my vocabulary is limited mostly to cursing and ordering good things to eat.

Since I was flying solo, I limited myself to my three core benchmarks for Shanghainese "xiao chi", namely xiaolong bao, shengjian bao (pan-fried dumplings) and xian doujiang (savory soymilk soup). The xiaolong bao were very good, I'd definitely put them in the top tier of my favorites, behind Shanghai House's and Shanghai Dumpling King's (pending a revisit, since I haven't been to SDK in quite some time) but ahead of Shanghai Restuarant's (Oakland). They were a tiny bit larger than standard (a minor quibble, I know, but I'm finicky about XLB orhodoxy) with a somewhat thick skin and a soup slightly lacking in flavor sharpness. The taste and texture of the both the wrapper and its contents were, however, otherwise very good.

The shengjian bao were also good, as good as I've found in the US (though I haven't pursued SJB as assiduously as I have XLB) but more genteel than the oh-so-satisfying grease bombs from the streets of Shanghai. They, too, were on the large side, but nicely browned on the bottoms and artfully studded with sesame seeds and spring onion tops. The mince pork filling was savory, and they were juicy BUT NOT JUICY ENOUGH, DAMMIT!

The xian doujiang was about par with what I've been able to find in the US, excepting the paramount version served at Shanghai House in San Francisco. XDJ is a witches brew of soy milk, and some or all of vinegar, dried brine shrimp, pickled mustard greens, pork sung, chili oil, soy sauce, sesame oil and salt, that I can think of, and there are always islands of yuotiao (cruller) pieces. The soy milk curdles just like cow's milk from the vinegar, and all kinds of dynamics are set up, flavorwise, which are impossible to deconstruct, IMHO, to lay bare what's right or wrong with the brew. It's either the poportions of the ingredients or the mystical incantation uttered over a bowl of xian doujiang while it's being assembled which determine whether it has magic in it or not. The XDJ at Shanghai House does, but that at Sunny Shanghai doesn't.

Sunny Shanghai has a host of other breakfast time comfort foods I've been missing, like scallion pancakes, "xiao" wonton soup, curry beef soup, and did someone say stinky tofu? I'll be back!

Sunny Shanghai
189 El Camino Real, San Bruno, CA 94066

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  1. Based on the 4th photo of the Chinese only white board specials:

    Left column, top to bottom:

    Preserved veg yellow fish soup
    Ms Sung fish thick soup
    shredded daikon carp soup
    fried stinky tofu
    bean thread + meat clay pot
    lions head meatball
    braised ti pang (pork hock) (big/small)
    scallion roast pork large ribs
    preserved veg stewed pork (mei cai cau rou)

    Right column, top to bottom.
    si gua loofa melon bamboo pith
    garlic stir fry a choy
    preserved veg + ? shredded pork
    foo yi 3 freshes
    foo yi little bak choy
    stir fried shrimp (oil explosion shrimp)
    crystal shrimp
    bamboo + 3 ?
    pan fried fish
    preserved veg with dried tofu strips and julienne pork
    ? pig's knuckles

    Note: preserved veg, there is "suet tsai" and "tza tsai". Honestly I cannot properly explain the difference, but stricly an aquired taste that I am not terribly fond of :-).

    8 Replies
    1. re: K K

      Thanks. My wife thanks you too, because I won't bug her to translate it.

      If you are talking about "zha cai" and "suan cai", one is pickled mustard tuber, the other is pickled mustard leaves, as I understand it. "Zha cai" is the most commonly used one, usually packaged as "Sichuan preserved vegetables" in little foil packets. Then there is "mei cai"......

      1. re: Xiao Yang

        Suet cai, the suet = snow. Either way mustard green or not, definitely not my bag.

        The Suan cai I am familiar with is typically pickled/sour/fermented cabbage. The receipe I would guess changes every square mile or province in China. ie so many preps over something pretty simple. The more further north you go, the stronger the receipe and scent. Old Islamic Mandarin has a fantastic version that resembles a North Eastern prep (like Chang Bai style). Joy in Foster City does a half decent one that is available with bean thread noodle in soup with pork belly slices.

        Mei cai....hmm not sure what veg they use in Taiwan but based on what I saw once at the back of a restaurant where they stuff empty water bottles with veg, it appeared to be mustard greens. Interesting how mei cai with pork belly is common in Shanghainese cooking, Hakka Cantonese, and Hakka Taiwanese but they all taste different. Hakka Cantonese mei cai pork belly is typically sweet and ditto for the mei cai itself, whereas the Hakka Taiwanese prep, the mei cai is more pungent and not sweet at all.

        Foo guess it is some sort of yuba. Foo as in the Fu in ToFu, and Yi is "clothing".

        I am a bit puzzled at the differences in the oil explosion shrimp and crystal shrimp. I know the former is basically fried in a lot of oil. The latter based on the chinese characters (for crystal) hints at a "shiny" appearance or image from the prep. In Hong Kong the equivalent name of this dish at Shanghainese restaurants is clear stir fried shrimp (also in a lot of oil but doesn't taste that heavy).

        The pan fried fish is dry pan fried. If it is anything like Su Hong Palo Alto's, I'm guessing topped with oil and a ton of scallions for that homey flavor. Pomfret is a good fish to use for this.

        1. re: K K

          Ack, either I'll have to learn Taiwanese phoneticization or you'll have to yearn Hanyu PinYin ;-)

          As Heraklitos of Ephesus said, "If you look for gold, you will find some":

          Fuyi might be red fermented tofu, the kind sold in little jars.

          I believe crystal shrimp is stir-fried with a little egg white, as in "velveting".

          1. re: Xiao Yang

            Thank you alll for feeding my curiosity, my imagination and my appetite!

          2. re: K K

            If I guessed right, fu yi is dried bean curd skin... i.e. that dried brownish tofu stuff, sometimes come in sheets, or sometimes in tube-ish form. The prep with bok choy, I was told, is very Shanghainese.

            1. re: intomeat

              Some google searching indicates that it can be either the dried tofu skin (but Shanghainese usually call that "doufu pian") or the red fermented tofu (actually white dried tofu with chili oil. The tofu skin would make sense with the "three fresh" but the red fermented would go better with Shanghai bok choy.

              1. re: intomeat

                I've had that fu yi dish... it's tofu skin braised with bokchoy.

          3. re: K K

            Fu yi here is probably the dried bean curd skin in flat sheet form, since "fu yi" literally means tofu clothes.

            The last two items on the left are bai zhe jie hong shao rou - bowtie bean curd tofu with red roasted pork, and hong men zhu sho - red steamed pig's knuckles.

            Definitely some interesting items on the board and all sound mouthwatering.