Lao Shanghai

April 29 2009 - 5:00 AM

 Previously Reviewed May 18th 2008

For the last week or so, I've been seriously jonesing for some xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. What's that, you say? The xiao long bao is a Shanghai specialty, a bite-size morsel of fatty pork in a semi-transluscent dough wrapper. These are typically steamed over napa leaves in bamboo steamers, and as a result, the dumpling contains a rich, meaty broth that explodes in your mouth as you bite in. The trick is to carefully pick up the dumpling and place it in a soup spoon, so that you don't lose any of the broth inside. Cut with vinegared soy sauce, I could easily make an entire meal out of only soup dumplings. By far the best dumplings I have tasted come from Joe's Shanghai in New York. (If you stop by Joe's, I recommend braving the crowds and going to the Chinatown location.) Hoping to find a substitute closer to home, I decided to stop by Lao Shanghai to check out their offerings. How does Lao Shanghai hold up against its East-coast competition?

Tony Hu's Lao Sze Chuan is an old foodie favorite, and with the addition of Lao Beijing and Lao Shanghai last year, the triumvirate of Lao restaurants covers an even greater span of Chinese cuisine. Lao Shanghai's menu duplicates many of the items from the flagship restaurant, with the addition of a page of Shanghai specialties at the beginning. The restaurant also redesigned their menu layout recently, and the resultant menu is much clearer and easier to read. The inclusion of photos also works wonders at swaying indecisive diners.

After much debate and handwringing, we dutifully ordered three out of the four Shanghai specialties trumpeted on the glossy poster adjacent to our table: the pork belly with preserved bean curd sauce, Shanghai style fish fillet, and of course, an order of xiao long bao. To round out the meal with some greenery, I added an order of stir-fried Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce. The salt and pepper tofu fried to a golden crisp at a neighboring table also looked appealing, but we decided this dish belonged more to the "fried" category, rather than the "vegetable" category.

The Shanghai fish arrived first, a full plate of delicate fish in white sauce with pieces of crisp black fungus. Served over rice, the fish was a lipsmacking comfort food, just like my grandma used to make it. The Chinese broccoli was a nice foil to the fish, with a touch of bitterness to the leafy greens, topped with oyster sauce. After much anticipation, a basket of 8 soup dumplings was served. I gingerly maneuvered one into my soup spoon and bit in. The dumpling had a rich, savory broth inside, but the quantity of broth was nowhere near the eye-squirting levels seen at Joe's Shanghai. Sorry, Lao Shanghai, but Joe's definitely wins this round. Having said that, the dumplings were piping hot and satiated my soup dumpling craving for the time being.

Finally, the pork belly arrived, six hefty slices of belly in apple-red bean curd sauce over a bed of sauteed spinach. The preserved bean curd sauce was disappointing and seemed sanitized for American palates. Preserved, or fermented tofu is a pungent, nose-wrinkling affair, but like a strong blue cheese, it adds new dimensions to otherwise standard dishes when used properly. This sauce did not showcase the true potential of preserved bean curd ("It tastes like cherry ketchup," commented one person), and was mostly a sweet distraction from the unctuous slices of pork belly. Still, we finished all of the food with satisfied sighs and grunts.

Service was prompt and friendly, and the staff was very understanding when we mentioned that a member of our group had a nut allergy. (Sometimes explaining this can be quite frustrating with language barriers.) The restaurant also seems to have undergone some major improvements in decor since opening, with warm wood paneling and sturdy chairs to make you feel at home. There was a lengthy line of people covetously eyeing our table when we departed around 6:45 pm. However, if you'd like to bypass this, I have called to make reservations before at Lao Sze Chuan, so I'm guessing this is also possible at the two sister restaurants.

Lao Shanghai
2163 S. China Place (in the Chinatown Plaza)
(312) 808-0830