What a strange menu Shanghai Asian Cuisine has! The lower end, price-wise, is noodles, soups, dumplings, and the little appetizing dishes that form the heart of Shanghai cuisine. The more expensive end is basically Chinese-American carryout—though, in a thoroughly modern way, the bill of fare favors a bland version of Sichuan over Cantonese. It offers virtually no Shanghai entrées, like braised pork shoulder and lion-head meatballs. Just who is the menu aimed at?
Shanghai Asian Cuisine (SAC) is a gleaming new café located adjacent to the so-called Chinatown Mall—a narrow passageway lined with small businesses running between Elizabeth Street and the Bowery. The alley recalls the Chinatown of a century ago, when tong members armed with hatchets murdered their rivals with a quick chop to the head then escaped via such routes. Believe me, you’re in no danger of head cleavage now as you ease into SAC to discover two comfortable lines of tables occupied by an interesting mix of patrons, from Chinese students bearing laptops, to suburban couples in the city for an afternoon of shopping, to cops from the precinct house across the street.
The don’t-miss dish to be seen on every table is the celebrated Shanghai soup dumplings. These quavering, liquid-containing pouches—shaped like a round leather coin purse with a pucker on top—took the city by storm a decade ago, resulting in nearly a dozen places slinging the cuisine in Manhattan alone. At SAC, the eight dumplings (“steamed tiny buns with crab meat and pork,” $7.45) boast a yellowish wad of crab sticking out the top, like chin whiskers on an octogenarian. With no stinting on cost or flavor, the pork filling is also miraculously high in crab content.
Several friends agreed one evening that these soup dumplings are the city’s best; with a skin so thin, it’s a challenge getting them from steamer to mouth intact. The accompanying tongs (utensils, not gang members) are useless, because they tear the supremely thin membrane. Your only choice is to grab the purse by the pucker with your fingers and carefully boost it onto the spoon. And thus to your mouth: Nip off the top and suck out the hot juices before eating the rest of the dumpling, dipped in black vinegar. How are these amazing pouches engineered? The soup is incorporated into the filling in gelatin form, which turns to liquid once the dumplings are steamed.
Other dumplings on the menu are damn fine, too, making SAC one of the few places in Chinatown you can enjoy all-day dim sum. Shaped something like a conch shell, the watercress-and-shrimp models ($5.45 for six) display a pale-green tint. The pea-shoot ones are also worth scarfing; in fact, they’re a real delight on a menu with few vegetarian offerings. Skip the “Szechuan” wontons, which substitute a sweet soy sauce for the usual hot chili oil. Go instead to Cold Dishes, a menu section that represents a particular Shanghai passion.
These selections are said to represent a style of eating brought to the Chinese metropolis by the Russians a century ago, in which a series of room-temp selections are served buffet-style as prelude to a banquet. The most famous is mock duck ($6), slices of non-meat made with tofu skin and mushrooms, reputedly invented by Buddhist monks. Some places, it really looks like duck. Not here. At three choices for $16, you can assemble your own mini-buffet of small dishes. You might pick smoked fish (gnarly and chewy), jellyfish (shredded and sustainable), and wine chicken (tangy, pale, and poached). For the most adventuresome eaters, the feet of the wine chicken can also be yours.
Featuring thick noodles in dark soy sauce, the section Shanghai Style Lo Mein offers several topping combinations, of which “mixed meat and seafood” is the most desirable. The best pasta of all is illogically located among one of the soup sections: Noodles with meat sauce ($5.75) is an excellent take on a northern Chinese specialty called zha jiang mian—also available in Korean restaurants—that features cucumber-garnished wheat noodles with a thick gravy of ground meat and preserved black beans. You should avoid the most expensive section of the menu, Shanghai Asian Cuisine Specialties ($9.75 to $15.95)—a bunch of sticky-sweet remakes of dishes you’ve had better versions of elsewhere.
Oozing an agreeable leguminous paste, the flaky pastry of red bean pancakes ($4.50) suggests a Malaysian or Indian origin. And just because there’s no such thing as dessert in a Chinese restaurant, that shouldn’t stop you from ordering a batch at the end of your meal and treating them that way.