4681 Convoy St.
A common component of inauthentic Chinese restaurants is the décor. Walking between giant ceramic lions into a dimly lit room furnished with things covered in red vinyl is usually a giveaway that you're in for some thick, sweet-ass sauce liberally applied to overpriced dishes. In case it isn't clear, I don't much like inauthentic Chinese restaurants.
New Shanghai is more my style. Located in a Kearny Mesa strip mall (third location, joining Irvine and Las Vegas), sandwiched between a Korean BBQ restaurant/karaoke bar and an upscale Japanese eatery, New Shanghai serves uncompromisingly authentic Chinese dishes at a reasonable price with nary a scrap of red vinyl in sight. Ditto for the ceramic lions. Not only is the food excellent, but the place is also open late-until midnight on Friday and Saturday, when you'll be dining among a young Asian crowd.
For the adventurous, the menu has no shortage of challenging dishes: fish head casserole, pork hand tendon in white sauce, pickled cabbage with chitterling and pork chitterling and blood cake, to name a few-and that's just on the regular menu. In addition to the standard, vinyl-bound menu there's a single-sheet specials menu, for different times of day. There are menus for evening and late-night dining, with fixed prices of $7.25 and $4.95, respectively. These menus also offer some challenging fare, as well as dishes that are friendlier to American palates.
My buddy Lance and I split a couple of appetizers (steamed pork buns and Chinese pancake with onion) and three entrées-one from the regular menu (Szechuan chicken), and two from the late-night specials list (onion beef and sweet and sour pork ribs). Specials menu item portions are smaller, about enough for a solo meal; the regularly priced items are large enough for two.
The first thing you notice about the entrées at New Shanghai is the sauce, or, really, the lack of sauce. The food is sauced perfectly, with none of the glutinous mess you might find in Americanized places. Instead, the sauces are light, and just the right amount clings to the food. And when you order a dish like the Szechuan chicken, chicken is what you get. Not a lot of celery and water chestnuts with a few precious chicken chunks.
The Szechuan chicken is a study in heat. The wait staff will warn you that it's hot. Unlike an Americanized place, the "hot & spicy" indicators on this menu are accurate. It's a pile of crisp-fried, red pepper flake-coated chicken, scallions, sliced garlic and whole hot red peppers sprinkled with sesame seeds. Intensely garlicky and hot, hot, hot. There's a nice, mildly sweet taste to the chicken before the heat slams you-hard. If you like spicy food, this dish is a must.
The sweet and sour pork ribs may surprise you if you're used to Americanized sweet and sour. The sauce here is brown, not candy-apple red, and has just a hint of sweetness to it. The meat has a light, breaded coating, which is a nice change from the giant balls of dough with a small piece of meat that passes for sweet and sour pork at lesser restaurants. With bones intact, this is finger food, to be picked up and nibbled off the bones. It's a surprisingly subtle dish, and a flavorful bargain.
The onion beef is the only disappointment-not because it's bad; it simply pales next to the magnificence of the two previous dishes. Thin slices of beef, with scallion and bamboo shoots, coated in a light, ginger-spiked sauce, this is a tasty dish, if a bit bland. Good choice for the adventure-challenged.
For some reason, our appetizers did not come until after the entrées (the waitress telling us only, "not ready yet," as she passed our table), but they were worth the wait, particularly the pork buns, which are delicious and abundant. For $5 you get 10 dumplings, a little more than an inch wide, consisting of a ginger and garlic-spiced pork meatball wrapped in dough. The steam from the meatball produces a broth inside the dumpling, which makes for a sublime flavor. These should not be missed.
The other appetizer, the Chinese pancake with onion, is reminiscent of a thick tortilla studded with green onion slices. It's also tasty, though I wouldn't call it a must-have item.
New Shanghai is a must-go, however, and a great late-night alternative to taco shops.