The shrimp-stuffed tofu hot pot at Shanghai isn’t at all what I imagined the first time I ordered it. Not that I’d ever had the dish before. But having consumed my share of hot pots over the years, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: shrimp, or maybe bits of shrimp, encased in firm tofu. The tofu would have to be firm, I reasoned, to hold up to simmering in the sauce of the stew-like dish, which would of course be served in the traditional earthenware baking dish that gives the hot pot its name.
I got the earthenware dish part right. As for the rest: large cubes of ethereally light silken tofu, each topped with a single shrimp and encased in a delicate egg batter. The sauce, a mere glaze whose translucent amber color belies its umami richness, interlaced with ribbons of scallion. Needless to say, my first order of shrimp-stuffed tofu hot pot at Shanghai will not be my last.
The hot pot wasn’t the only surprise that Shanghai had in store for me. There was the salt and pepper pork chop – cut into chopsticks-manageable pieces, battered and fried, then tossed with sliced jalapeños, scallions and julienne red peppers, a dish as rustically vibrant as the tofu was delicate. And beef chow hun, a dish seldom seen in these parts, and here expertly rendered with toothsome broad noodles, tender beef and bean sprouts, glistening in a film of brown sauce. And Chinese broccoli, emerald-green and crunchy in oyster sauce.
On another visit, mine weren’t the only eyebrows raised at our table when the steamed whole flounder arrived, carpeted scallions and ginger slivers, and surrounded by a broth still simmering in a large oval platter set over a Sterno flame. A vegetarian entree pairing black mushrooms and yu choy, a green vegetable similar to Chinese broccoli but thinner and more tender, also rated a unanimous thumbs-up.
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As thoroughly delightful as all these dishes were, the real surprise for me was that they were on Shanghai’s menu at all.
The restaurant opened in 1980 (in what must surely be one of the oldest strip malls in Durham), and I hadn’t eaten there in years. My memories of solid but not spectacular Chinese-American fare served in a traditional Chinese restaurant setting had, I confess, grown a little fuzzy. They certainly didn’t include a menu with more than two dozen dishes under the headings of “Authentic Dishes” and “Cantonese Style” (noodle dishes).
The dining room looks like it has gotten a fresh coat of paint in the interim. But the atmosphere is still very much old-school, from the ornate red and gold dragon ceiling panels to the calligraphy water colors on the walls.
Owner/chef Peter Wong, who bought the restaurant several years ago with his wife, Lilly, has clearly elevated the game in the kitchen. A seasoned veteran of more than 20 years (before buying Shanghai, he was chef/partner at the now-shuttered China One), Wong’s talents are not limited to the Cantonese cuisine that is his specialty. Based on my admittedly limited – but consistently rewarding – sampling, he’s also adept at turning out the Chinese-American fare that makes up the bulk of the offering,
Hot-and-sour soup is more deeply flavorful than most, and the ginger sings a clearer note in the house-made minced pork filling in steamed dumplings. The maraschino cherry garnish on a plate of sesame-spangled shrimp toast is sure to evoke a nostalgic smile on the face of anyone old enough to have been eating in Chinese restaurants around the time Shanghai first opened its doors.
Fried chicken wings are among the crispest and juiciest around, in a Chinese restaurant or otherwise. You can get them with a Buffalo-style sauce for an extra dollar. Save your money. And be careful not to burn your lips. Service is fast and attentive under the watchful eye of Lilly Wong, and the wings will likely be searingly hot when they arrive. Let’s just say I learned my lesson.
That won’t stop me from starting with an order of the wings next time. Then I’m eager to try some more of those Cantonese specialties. I’m especially curious about the shrimp-stuffed eggplant and the pork chop with sweet black vinegar. It’s been ages since I’ve had Cantonese-style roast duck. And if the weather is cool, the beef stew hot pot ought to hit the spot. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea what to expect with that one.
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