A few years back, New Yorkers often returned from Chinatown with chins glistening and grease splattered on their shirts. They’d fallen in love with Shanghai soup dumplings, noodle reservoirs bulging with greasy gravy, ground pork, and—if you were lucky—a few shreds of crab. Known more properly as xiao lung bao, these “tiny juicy buns” were architectural wonders that had to be eaten by scooping the fragile bags from their lettuce beds, nipping off the puckered top, then sucking out the hot gravy—a potentially dangerous operation that sometimes resulted in squirting molten lard across the table. The fad has largely evaporated and half the restaurants have closed, which is probably how Shanghai Café slunk into town two years ago unnoticed. While many of the earlier places were clearly aimed at non-Asian diners, this modernistic Mott Street spot supplements higher-end dishes with tons of lower-end stuff like noodles, soups, fried rices, and stir fries, and the place clearly came as a boon to its young and sometimes frugal Chinese patrons. The menu still flogs the juicy buns, but in three versions. The most expensive ($6.95 for 8) features pork and a larger wad of crab than has ever been found in a juicy bun before. Sans crab, the dumplings are two dollars less, and I don’t know which to recommend, since each is equally good in its own way. A third type cloaks gravy and pork in a doughier dumpling, fried crisp on the bottom like a pot sticker. The squirting grease will still kill you.
Dragon-free and decorated with colorful neon bulbs that squirm behind diffusion panels, the café is prone to further largesse where crab is concerned. Braised noodles with crab meat and young chives ($12.95) is a massive Pyrex bowl heaped with e-fu noodles stuck together with curds of scrambled egg. L.A. restaurant critic and Asian-food lover Jonathan Gold pronounced them “plain, but good” one evening. If pan-fried noodles are your thang, try the Shanghai variety ($6.95), an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that includes plenty of shrimp, chicken, and pork. The contrast between crisp noodles and soggy noodles propels the dish.
Not to say that the place doesn’t do high-end stuff well. The braised pork shoulder glistens with brown goo in the traditional fashion, and you must peel back layers of fat like a stomach-staple surgeon to excavate the meaty veins of pork. But it’s not on the English menu, so you’ve got to ask for it. (Hint: It’s the first $12.95 dish listed on the Chinese-only menu, so you can point to it.) The shoulder arrives prettily surrounded by baby bok choy. Then there is the maverick selection of casseroles, soups really, served in ceramic crocks and sporting some of the tastiest broths you’ve ever sipped, though they tend toward a rather unappetizing shade of gray. Salty pork with bamboo shoots and lotus root ($12.95) is perfect of its type, but if you want something more pungent, select yellow fish with preserved vegetable.
My favorite item on the menu, aside from the tiny juicy buns, is the Shanghai standard of shredded eel ninplo style ($10.95). According to the waitress, ninplo just means fisherman, but maybe she meant Frenchman, because this sauté of shredded eel and yellow chives is garlicky enough to be a Parisian bistro staple. And it doesn’t squirt.