Chinese food for travelers, not tourists
Shanghai Town1260 Lake Blvd.
Davis, CA 95616
Sometimes a great restaurant can be hard to find. This can be due to something as basic as poor signage or an out of the way location, or maybe, perhaps, it’s because the spot is hidden inside another rather average restaurant.
A restaurant within a restaurant.
So goes the story with Shanghai Town, a tiny dive located inside a tiny strip mall in the northern part of Davis. It serves Mongolian Chicken, Kung Pao Beef, and the rest of the familiar Chinese-American takeout menu you’ll likely find in every Chinese-American takeout joint in every town in the United States. But if you pay attention to the scores of Chinese families here ordering in Mandarin, their tables laden with dishes not so familiar to Every Single Chinese-American Takeout Restaurant, you’ll find the real Shanghai Town—a place where diners will be transported to the Huangpu Qu district in Shanghai to taste some of the most authentic food outside The Bund.
This food is simple to find if you pay attention. The menu is marked with stars, which indicate that the dish is authentically Shanghai style—think braises, heavy pours of vinegar, raw sugar and heady soups. Stick to these items and ignore the rest.
Lion’s Head soup, a signature Shanghai-style dish, consists of fatty minced pork meatballs the size of your fist, seared and added to a meaty broth with cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. It, like many of the Shanghai dishes, arrives in a blazing clay bowl greater than any wall in China and capable of feeding a small army.
A clay pot of eggplant vermicelli and minced pork announced itself with a fervent burble of sticky, soy-laced caramel goodness. A tip: as eager as you may be to immediately eat, let it cool before spooning the velvety cuts of eggplant in your mouth. The hint of chile—enough to tingle your lips—provides the perfect coda to the dish.
Braised bean curd and pork belly argues equally for attention. Knotted ribbons of bean curd taste savory and addictingly salty. The fatty bricks of expertly cooked pork belly play a supporting role to the bean curd—unheard of in today’s pork-focused dining culture, but here it is and done successfully.
The Shanghai-style noodles are classic chow mein noodles served with a pork meat sauce. At first bite they seem innocuous, but then the chile quickly builds and claws at the back of your throat. Pain as pleasure found in a bowl.
Checker-cut strips of fresh calamari sauteed with yellow beans and crispy minced mustard greens make for a fragrant break from the heavy meat dishes. The vegetables offer a mix of crisp and smooth, while the calamari provides a pleasant chew. (Texture is important in Chinese cuisine—chewy being one that’s particularly prized). Beware of the scathing heat as it’s sharp as a lash.
We did meander from the Shanghai menu items—particularly to the dim sum. The cabbage pork dumplings were bland, and the steamed baby buns terribly bready. Pass over them.
Service here is a bit overworked but must be hailed if you expect menus or a check. Still, the dreamy Shanghai food and mind-boggling prices take me back to my time in China. When you know what to order, the food is stupendous.