In general, Chinese restaurants put little stock in looking good, whatever the quality of the food they serve. Speaking with the sole (and vague) qualification of being Chinese myself, I suspect this is a simple reflection of the utilitarian preferences of Chinese diners, who seem to have an almost calculated disregard for such incidentals as dÃ©cor, and judge a restaurant ultimately by what its kitchen produces. They are quite at peace feasting on the choicest morsels in the shabbiest surroundings. So it was that upon first entering Lao Shanghai one year ago, observing its white linen tablecloths on dark wooden tables, the generally subdued tones of its rather coherent furnishing scheme, even with muzak on the speakers, I wasn’t sure what to expect. That was especially so given my familiarity with the pedestrian decoration and what I considered the overrated food at its older sibling, Lao Szechuan, which together with Lao Shanghai and Lao Beijing makes up a well-known trio of restaurants in Chicago serving regional Chinese food. I was soon happily disarmed by some of the best Chinese food–of any region–I’ve ever had in Chicago.
A saucer of lightly pickled cucumber is served before every meal at Lao Shanghai, one of few restaurants in Chicago specializing in the food of Shanghai. Crisp, sweet, and not at all denatured as pickles are wont to be, it is a foretaste of the pleasures to come, and also a good example of some defining characteristics of Shanghainese cooking: an emphasis on freshness and a delicate touch with seasonings, aided by the judicious use of vinegar, wine, and notably sugar in savory dishes. A fondness for gentle, slow cooking in liquid, as opposed to quick, vigorous cooking in oil, is another defining characteristic of this scarcely two-century-old cuisine that melds the traditions of the provinces close to its home. Its presence is greatest in the first four pages of the menu which list appetizers–notable for cold dishes, including a few variations on the theme of protein in a sweet brown liquid–and (other) house specialties, notably the braised and steamed dishes. The rest of the menu, except the rice and noodle and dessert sections, is dominated by other regional cuisines. Remarkably for a well-known Chinatown restaurant, the menu is also relatively short, and–as I realized three visits and one week later–completely devoid of offal, a minor flaw more than made up for by how well what is actually included usually turns out.
My most recent meal there started out with Shanghai-style smoked fish and steamed soup dumplings (xiao long bao), iconic and almost obligatory for a review of a Shanghainese restaurant. The former was a tasty but unremarkable dish of deep-fried bone-in cross-sections of fish, its exterior softened and lightly sweetened by a thin marinade. The latter were encased in dough wrappers, sturdy but not tough, that held up between chopsticks to burst between the teeth with broth–steam-melted gelatin–and succulent pork; optionally enhanced with a nip of ginger and vinegar, they were good though perhaps not exceptional. Though both were satisfying, they didn’t measure up to my memory of the appetizers I had on my previous visit, the quality of which I felt better represented the capabilities of the Shanghainese cook: bean curd skin in a sweet spice- and tea-scented sauce reminiscent of tea eggs, and a salad of atomized bits of greens and tofu redolent of toasted sesame oil, so tasty a surprise it could only have been invented out of deep familiarity with a tofu-eating tradition.
More hometown food followed in the form of braised pork belly in preserved bean curd sauce, tender slabs of fatty skin-on meat almost melting with its sauce into a pleasant funk of swine flesh and decayed vegetable matter, matched in texture and contrasted in flavor by a bed of steamed spinach. Rich without being cloying, it was comforting nourishment, even with the aforementioned sauce somewhat lumpy from an overdose of cornstarch–the only dish I’ve had here marred by this flaw, which is mind-bogglingly common in this country even at well-regarded establishments. The same high standards evident in the Shanghainese specialties here are upheld in preparations from elsewhere, as my companions and I always noted in our forays outside the city’s culinary territory. Most recently, an order of Szechuan (or more accurately, kung pao) scallops yielded mild meaty discs with fiery, often crisp caramelized exteriors, beautifully complemented by crunchy, flavorful peanuts. Pork stir-fried with salted mustard greens and young soybeans (better known as edamame) rounded out a demonstration of the kitchen’s skill in various cooking traditions and techniques: with an alchemy of toasted sesame oil, the timeless pairing of pork and salted greens, and deft tossing in a very hot wok producing vivid tastes and textures in a smoky, savory shroud, it was stir-frying par excellence.
For dessert, a round cake of sweet- and nut-studded glutinous rice was set before us with a fork to each and one knife for all, with no chopstick in sight, more like a serving of pÃ¢tÃ© than Chinese dessert. Though the dish is described in Chinese as “eight-treasure,” only four apparent ones were counted (red bean paste, dates, sesames, and melon seeds); nevertheless, all elements were bound by the lightly sweetened, faintly medicinal-scented rice into a concoction of well-balanced textures and flavors.
A different kind of treat, always on the house, is sometimes available to Chinese-literate diners, and it has nothing to do with the ability to decipher the menu more accurately. It is a delicious jolt of bewilderment and mild repugnance when the collection of Chinese characters carved into wooden squares on the back wall turns out, upon closer scrutiny, to be an apparently random set of Chinese family names, with perhaps a few other unselectively chosen characters thrown in to fill up space. But ultimately, whatever one may think of that, the food at Lao Shanghai is undeniably excellent overall, with great value for the price. That, along with comfortable surroundings and efficient albeit unremarkable service, should be enough–never mind my relaxed Chinese standards in non-culinary matters–to make a good time for anyone.
2163 S. China Pl. Monday-Friday, 11am-10pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am-11pm.