Shanghai City3860 Convoy St., #105Kearny Mesa 858-278-5883
I'm taller than your average Asian. My dad tells me it's because I'm half-Shanghainese and stuff just comes up bigger there. As examples, there's Shanghai's 101-story World Financial Center, the highest skyscraper in all of China. And Yao Ming, the tallest ball player currently in the NBA, was born in Shanghai.
I'm not sure if I buy it—while I do occasionally see some tallish people when I visit Shanghai, I always have a clear, unobstructed view over everyone's heads while standing in a crowded subway car. But whatever the root of my altitudinous state, I'm happy to have a reason to travel to a city whose food I have grown to love like no other. If you're used to the light sauces and stir-fried dishes found in Cantonese restaurants, then Shanghainese food will be a bit of an adjustment. Delicate and sophisticated preparations can be found, but instead of quick-cooked, flashed-in-a-pan food, there are more braises and stews, using modest ingredients that take time to reach their peak potential. The usual taste profile is a mix of sweet and salty, typically more straightforward and bolder than other Chinese flavors. Hey, kinda like me.
Whenever I come back from eating my fill in Shanghai, I try to avoid going out to Chinese for as long as I can, knowing that there's no true comparison here. But soon the craving intensifies, and that's where Shanghai City saves me. Its owners are Shanghainese, and its menu is the closest to the real thing that I've found. The Convoy Street restaurant doesn't look like the Shanghai of today, which is more glass and steel than ancient stone and wood. Instead it looks like China filtered through an Asian fetishist's lens, floridly covered in red lacquer, mirrors, gold bamboo-print wallpaper. Still, it feels familiar, like the Chinese restaurants of the '80s where I first tasted Americanized versions of what I was eating at home.
There are many standard Chinese dishes on the menu, but the Shanghainese specialties are where it's at. My favorite cold salad in Shanghai—a julienne of snow peas, carrots and celery with strips of marinated bean curd—has a flavor-cousin at Shanghai City in the dried bean curd with malantou, a wild herb with a fresh, grassy taste that's so refreshing when combined with diced soy-sauce-braised tofu and seasoned simply with sesame oil and salt. Xiao long bao, a personal obsession, are steamed buns stuffed with ground pork. In Shanghai, I watched chefs deftly assemble the buns, flicking pliable dough around a meat filling studded with cubes of jellied broth, or aspic, which slowly melt as the buns steam, moistening the filling and giving the eater a little soup to sip as you bite through the dumpling skin. Make sure your steamed bun is safely in a Chinese spoon, or risk losing the delicious pork-broth bonus.
Chicken usually ranks low on my meat list, but the Jiangsu crispy chicken here is an exception. The chicken meat, usually flavorless elsewhere, is fully seasoned and moist. Though the skin is crisp, it's relatively un-greasy, rendered of all its fat. Chinese know their way around pork, too. A staple at our dinner table in Shanghai was red-cooked pork, usually pork belly or another tougher cut of meat that benefits from a long, slow simmer that turns the meat into spoonable softness. At Shanghai City, the stewed pork shin is braised in a sweet soy mixture spiced with garlic, ginger and star anise. It's huge, so eating it requires a crowd.
And Chinese breakfast dishes, those hard-to-find treats, are served here on weekend mornings. Beef noodle soup, scallion pancakes and savory soy milk, with long fingers of fried bread for dipping, all make me feel, at least for a moment, that I've woken up on the other side of the world.