Posted in Dinner, Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco

Shanghainese Food: What to Get and Where to Eat

For most Americans, Chinese food is about Fried Rice, Chow Mein and the occasional Kung Pao Chicken. But China’s a big country, and just like in the States, each region has its own specialties.

For example, the food in Northern China is very different from Southern China. You’ll find a lot of stir-fries and rice dishes in the South, which is much more common in American Chinese restaurants.

Up North, though, the winters are longer and colder, hence their food is richer and tends to be a little heavier (braised meats and doughy noodles and dumplings). It’s good comfort food.

The food from Shanghai is no exception. Here are some tried and true favorites you’ll find at a typical Shanghainese restaurant. If they do these dishes well, you’ll be golden.

Lion’s Head Meatballs are named aptly for the way this dish was supposed to look. The dish usually has three ginormous pork meatballs, and is served on a bed of greens, which resembles the lion’s mane.

You can usually find this dish as a soup or braised. I prefer it braised, personally. The sauce is much richer and deeper in flavor. They start with ground pork and add in some finely chopped shiitake mushrooms and sometimes water chestnuts for texture. But a truly good version of this dish will also have the addition of anise, cinnamon and cloves, usually from a five-spice powder blend. The meatballs are then fried and braised. The flavors are very different, yet the ingredients are totally familiar. It’s such a fabulous dish that has a lot of warmth from the spices and goes great with some steamed white rice.

Pork Chop Rice With Greens is a very traditional homestyle meal. What makes this dish different is that chopped bits of baby bok choy and smoky ham are all cooked together with white rice to get a wonderful melding of all three flavors and a stickier rice. Add to that some golden fried pieces of pork chop and you’ve got a one-pot meal, Chinese style.

This is a wonderfully unusual take on veggies. Here, soybeans (edamame) are stir-fried with preserved mustard greens that add a nice tang and crunch. For protein and even more texture, tofu skin strips are thrown into the mix. It’s a dish that’s both mild and flavorful at the same time. It’s great mixed into a bowl of soup noodles, too.

Soup Dumplings (or Xiao Long Bao) are probably the most recognizable Shanghainese food item to those even remotely familiar with the cuisine. They’re called soup dumplings for the pocket of meat juices that end up on the inside of that delicately thin dough. If the doughy exterior is too thick, that’s a restaurant you don’t want to go back to. Getting the perfect mix of thin dough and flavorful meaty interior is an extremely difficult task. And you want to eat these babies when they’re fresh out of the steamer, otherwise they get gummy.

For novices, just place one dumpling very carefully (so you don’t rip the dough) onto your Chinese spoon. Take a small bite out of the skin and let the soup spill into your spoon. Yummy soup is another good sign of a great dumpling. After you slurp that up, dip the dumpling into the accompanying black vinegar and ginger sauce.

Enjoy…and if it’s good, you definitely will.

So if you love Chinese food, you might want to think outside the takeout box and look for more regionalized Chinese fare. You’ll never look at Kung Pao Chicken the same way again.

Shanghainese Restaurants I’d Recommend:

SHANGHAI DUMPLING SHOP (Michelin recommended in 2010)
455 Broadway, Millbrae
(650) 697-0682
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Braised Lion’s Head Meatballs, Stir Fried Rice Cake

250 South B St., San Mateo
(650) 340-7138
Must try: Pork Chop Rice, Spicy Dry Cold Noodles w/Cucumbers & Pork, Boiled Chicken w/House Dressing

3319 Balboa St., San Francisco
(415) 387-2088
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Lion’s Head Meatballs Soup, Soup Noodles w/Pork and Preserved Vegetables

*This post is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Posted in Food, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco, Street Food

All Hail the Chairman!

A new food truck has hit the now popular peninsula street food scene run by the folks at @MobiMunch.  Chairman Bao specializes in Chinese “buns”, meaning steamed white buns or glossy baked buns, both with various tasty Asian fusion fillings.

I chose the steamed versions, purely based on volume and cost.  They’re both cheaper and smaller than the baked variety and I could try more of them out.

I’ve tried the Chinese Spiced Duck Confit with Fresh Mango Salad with a gingery, oniony orange sauce (that looks like it belongs on a Big Mac), Crispy Tofu with Miso Greens and a wasabi-like green sauce, Lionshead Meatballs with Kimchee, Red Sesame Chicken with Scallions and Bokchoi, and Pork Belly with Pickled Daikon Radish.

All in all, I was impressed.  The quality of ingredients was definitely top-notch.  And eventhough these combinations were rather unconventional, all their elements were fairly authentic, which is surprising.  The flavors were extremely bold though, meaning they were heavy handed in their spices and saucing.  That’s alright, since they’re trying to pack a lot of flavor into a little bun.

Surprisingly, my favorite of all of them was the Crispy Tofu with Miso Greens.  The crispness of the greens and the nice soft silken tofu patty (love how it was perfectly browned) were a great contrast.  And the flavor of that wasabi sauce was fantastic.  It was all very fresh tasting yet flavorful and different.

The Meatball and Kimchee came in second with the tangy, saucy kimchee giving it a lot of texture and flavor.  And fortunately the meatball was flavored well and cooked perfectly, though it didn’t taste like the traditional Lionshead meatball you’d get at a Chinese restaurant.

I was NOT a fan of the Pork Belly and Daikon, though.  Disappointing really, because pork belly is one of my favorite things to eat.  It was horribly dry and boring.

The guys running the truck were super nice and even gave me a Lychee Ginger Shaved Ice with Boba to try.  It was yummy and I loved the fresh lychee pieces on the bottom.  But if they’d made it just a tad less sweet, it would be truly awesome.

I hear they’re hoping to add Brisbane and Redwood City to their weekly rotation, along with the usual San Francisco stops.  Let’s hope so!

Chairman Bao  – Mobile truck parks at various locations –