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Dec 3, 2008 05:58 AM

Shun Feng...finally, excellent Chinese food in Santa Cruz!

I'm gleeful to report that excellent Cantonese-style Chinese food can be found in Santa Cruz...yes, Santa Cruz! Those who live here understand the magnitude of this statement, and I do not offer it here lightly. I wouldn't tease you like that.

In three dinner visits within the past month and a half, I have concluded that Shun Feng (located in the Gateway Plaza on River St. near Cost Plus) is the best Chinese restaurant in the area. Ok, I've not eaten at every Chinese establishment in the area, but it is superior than King Chwan, O'mei, Panda Inn, Mei Garden, and others that have been expunged from memory. Given that Shun Feng specializes in Cantonese cuisine, other places such as King Chwan may offer better Sichuan fare. I'm not sure since I haven't tried anything Sichuan-influenced from Shun Feng, and I don't recall seeing too many Sichuan type dishes on their menu but my Chinese cuisine knowledge is relatively weak. I do know what tastes good though.

Dinner Summary from three visits with husband...

First visit: eggplant in XO sauce, duck and taro in claypot, sweet & sour pork spare ribs
Second visit: chicken & corn soup, beef chow fun (dry style), gai lan w/ garlic
Third visit: blue crab w/ ginger & scallions, HK-style chow mein, pea sprouts w/ fish balls

My absolute favorite dishes were the eggplant in XO, beef chow fun, HK chow mein, and pea sprouts w/ fish balls. Everything else except for the duck and taro claypot were still very good. The chef-owner has finesse w/ his light yet flavorful and balanced sauces and appears to know his way around a knife and wok. Everything is sliced expertly and cooked to perfection.

This is probably the least oily and heavy Chinese food I've encountered at any Chinese restaurant, and the freshness of ingredients leaps out. The pleasantly fluffy fish balls are made in-house and the live blue crab and many other ingredients are sourced from over the hill. The vegetables were all supremely fresh. Everything about the food from sourcing to presentation demonstrates high standards and pride.

I could eat here a few times a week, and w/ their convenient location and reasonable prices (our bill before tip has been around $25-28) this will be my go-to place for a satisfying, no-fuss dinner after a long day at work. The ambiance is unremarkable but comfy and clean. The service is a little bumbling but well-intentioned. The food has always come out hot and relatively quickly, but we've only been for a late dinner when there's been a max of two others dining.

Shun Feng is open late for this area (until 9 or 10pm) and also offers lunch service. Take-out is available, but I highly recommend eating in since this kind of food begs to be eaten right out of the kitchen. There are many vegetarian options and Chinese standards. The friendly and hospitable wife who works the front of the house when she's around said that lunch business is good while dinner traffic is slower. The couple owns another place in Felton (Shun Feng Mountain City) that has done good business but according to the article linked below, they are offering more traditional Chinese dishes in Santa Cruz. The wife told us that her husband mainly cooks in Santa Cruz but makes all the sauces and important elements for both places.

I'm really invested in this restaurant thriving, so I hope that hounds will go soon and then spread the word if you feel the same. I've already sent a few people who all returned w/ a big thumbs up. I'm interested in what you think, so please report back to this thread. I hope to add some photos from future visits.

SC Sentinel article:

Shun Feng Restaurant
420 River St Ste A, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

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  1. CL, even if you hadn't typed an exclamation point in the title, your excitement still leaps out at me! And I understand completely, as the Monterey Bay has been deprived of good Chinese food for too long. I've found a spot closer to my side that I'll report on after a couple more meals there. Things are looking up!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      Indeed, things are looking up! I sort of conditioned myself to not expect to find good Chinese food in Santa Cruz so I was a little wary after our first good meal. I didn't want to get my hopes up. But after three total visits and slowly getting to know the owners and their background and philosophy, I think Shun Feng holds great promise.

      They have both worked in kitchens since they were 14 and have owned restaurants in Canton before moving here in 2000. I think the chef is quite talented and can't wait to work our way through the menu week to week.

      I look forward to hearing about your Monterey Bay Chinese food discoveries!

    2. Thanks for the tip. I completely agree with you about Chinese in Santa Cruz. I tried Shun Feng a couple of nights ago on your recommendation. Summary: the first Chinese restaurant in Santa Cruz that's worth eating at. I wouldn't go so far as to say excellent, but it's definitely above the bar for me, mainly because the food isn't Americanized. I also chatted with the proprietor for a little while - they do seem to be trying hard to do it right. For their sake and mine, I sure hope it works out!

      I had the eggplant w/ XO sauce, what was supposed to be stir-fried pea shoots, and beef chow fun. I'd say the first dish was very good, with their tasty house-made XO sauce. Apparently, everything with XO is temporarily disappearing from the menu after this batch is done - something about being out of season. Not sure what ingredient is actually seasonal, but that's what they told me. The pea shoots were, pleasantly, the "large" variety (the broad leafed kind) rather than the "small" variety. Nice to see, as I love this dish in general, but there were some bits that were stringy and overall cooked a bit goopier than I prefer. But I'd get it again despite the shortcomings. The beef chow fun was, I'd say, average at best. Didn't have the appropriate wok-hay you need to make this dish sing.

      The good news is that there are a number of interesting dishes available on both menus (there's a "special" menu that's hardly so, and is both English and Chinese) that I hope to work through in the coming months.

      7 Replies
      1. re: bouncepass

        Thanks for your report back! Intriguing that the XO sauce is seasonal. I was pleasantly surprised w/ the large pea shoots that accompanied the fish balls. I was expecting the more delicate, stringy version but I liked the large ones quite a bit. What other dishes caught your eye for next time?

        1. re: Carb Lover

          You are making hungry. With cheap gas prices I will have go over the hill and see if it is really as good as you say.

          Better than cooking for myself.

          Now all you need is dim sum in Santa Cruz.

          1. re: yimster

            I'm having a hard time imagining driving over the hill TO Santa Cruz for Chinese food. The appropriate preposition is, 99% of the time, FROM. :) I personally don't think it's worth such a trip. There's plenty better on that side of the hill, but for us who have been deprived so long, the convenience is a big plus. I doubt we'll ever have dim sum worth eating over here but maybe I shouldn't be so pessimistic.

            I don't have the whole menu in front of me so this will be incomplete, but I'm keen on trying the salt-and-pepper squid, stuffed steamed tofu, pork belly w/ mustard greens, beef w/ bitter melon. With pre-order, we can even get steamed whole fish, roasted crispy whole chicken, house special salted chicken. There's even a "pan fried jalapenos fish paste" which sounds rather intriguing.

            1. re: bouncepass

              Yimster is an old-school chowhound who will drive far for the possibility of a great meal. I agree that he has many better options over the hill, but Shun Feng is an intriguing unknown IMO. The chef-owner does not appear to speak much English at all, so yimster could whip out his Cantonese. I'm sure he also wants an excuse to harass me about an Iron Chef cook-off once again... :-)

              I am interested in the pork belly w/ mustard greens too. I'd like to try some of the special items like steamed fish and crispy whole chicken. Perhaps a local chowdown will be in order come the new year!

              1. re: Carb Lover

                Pork belly with preserved mustard greens is true Cantonese comfort food. It is now on my list to go over the hill soon.

                I am too old to do another Iron Chef cook-off. After all I could not beat Oakjoan in a Chinese Chicken Salad cook-off how can start in on Carb Lover since she a better cook.

                Let me know I will be there.

                Maybe I can start on Alice who maybe a easier touch.

                By the way after reading bouncepass post on the chefs specials he may have some insight in Hakka dishes since salted chicken, stuffed tofu and pan fried paste may from Hakka roots. I will know more if and when I come down.

                I promise not to do any harassing, just knowing that you know if are aware about a Iron Chef cook-off is enough for me.

                1. re: Carb Lover

                  Yeah, I'm plotting how to get to Shun Feng--and I live in Los Angeles.

            2. re: Carb Lover

              XO sauce is not seasonal but it's ingredients can be very expensive. I have made in the past and I find the ready made close enough and a lot less work.

              Basic ingredients are dry shrimp, dry scallop, along with a few spices and sauces. The dried seafood cost a lot.

              Made three time and am done making it.

          2. Just another positive vote for Shun Feng. My boyfriend and I went for late lunch/early dinner around 3 today, and three or four other tables were seated with patrons.

            He ordered the mongolian beef, and I ordered the eggplant and bean curd in garlic sauce. I enjoyed my eggplant dish very much! The sauce was very dark, with lots of toasty garlic and black beans. There were julienned wood ear mushrooms, carrots, green onions, and I think some bamboo shoots in there as well.

            The mongolian beef was good as well. Came with some stirfried snowpeas and bamboo shoots on top.

            The steamed rice came in a cute, covered vessel, and there seemed to be a lot of attention to detail throughout the meal. The woman who served us was very nice, to the point of being apologetic! Granted, she'd had to deal with a vagrant who came in to use the bathroom earlier, and I think she was really embarrassed that we had to see her yell at the man to make him leave. Ah, Santa Cruz.

            After she brought the bill, she came back with a plate of two fried sesame balls filled with with red bean paste. They were very tasty, and a nice end to the meal.

            Total for two dishes, rice, and hot tea was $20.50 before tip.

            1 Reply
            1. re: operagirl

              Thanks for your report. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed your meal and there were some tables filled during a Sun. afternoon. That was nice of her to give you the fried sesame balls on the house. I'll have to try those one day...We haven't been in a couple of weeks, and I'm missing it.

            2. Another great dinner at Shun Feng after some last-minute shopping downtown. We ordered everything from the white board specials menu. Mussels in black bean sauce; gai lan w/ preserved pork; rice noodles w/ XO sauce.

              Black bean sauce was outstanding, a nice balance of pungent flavors w/ a lingering heat. Preserved pork is made in house; the marinade has a great sweet vinegary quality and the texture is compact and pleasantly chewy. Rice noodles were wonderfully blistered and crispy on the outside and custardy soft on the inside. Could have used a touch more sauce, but these dumplings were still delicious. All veggies sliced nicely, fresh, and cooked to perfection.

              This is now my favorite, go-to restaurant in SC. No one else is doing this kind of food. $32 before tip. Photos below.

              4 Replies
                1. re: Carb Lover

                  Since the CH photo upload is not working for me, below are linked photos of each dish.

                  Mussels w/ black bean sauce:

                  Gai lan w/ preserved pork:

                  Rice noodles w/ XO sauce:

                  1. re: Carb Lover

                    Those rice noodles look like they'd be worth driving over the hill for to me! Thanks for the update!

                    1. re: Carb Lover

                      Thanks for the update. This follows a basic rule of Cantonese food. Keep the food, simple and fresh. Show off the taste of the food. I think from your picture on Christmas eve. I am glad to take a break from cooking to read about more food.

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