We are blessed with so many excellent restaurants in San Francisco that sometimes we don’t get back even to our favorites. I was reminded of this after a recent visit to tiny Shanghai House, across the street from the Balboa Theater. When I walked in I saw my last review, written in 2007, facing me on a cardboard stand. I took it from the counter and used it to order–and sure enough, everything that I had raved about back then pleased me just as much now. I was captivated all over again by a place I had not visited for six years.
Just as I did then, I started with cold dishes: Bean Curd Puff ($5.50) and Shredded Jelly Fish with Green Onion ($5.75). These two dishes epitomize the light, bright, Shanghai flavor profile, with its delicate balance of sweet and sour, here coming from rice wine vinegar offset by a whisper of sugar. The so-called puffs are soft, brown cubes of wheat gluten enlivened with pine nuts and five spice powder–an ethereal bread salad. The jellyfish salad is pure white and crunchy, with shreds of salted daikon and a generous handful of slivered scallion. Both are dreamy.
Shanghai House makes fine xiao long bao, Shanghai Steamed Baby Dumplings (10 for $5.95), with tender wrappers and juicy, pure pork filling. The more pork-centric pot stickers (8 for $5.95) are equally well-constructed and appealing, with one crisp golden side. Tea Smoked Duck ($13.95 for a half) looks like a platter of black tiles, its shattering skin fragrant with the smoke from toasted tea leaves, with dark and provocatively salty flesh beneath. To eat Shangahai House’s version, you pull the meat and skin off the bones to stuff into steamed white buns smeared with hoisin sauce. Vegetarian Goose ($5.75) is another classic Shanghai starter that this kitchen has mastered. Many layers of tofu skin are wrapped around a filling of meaty mushrooms like a strudel with a crisped top. Such a tasty bite.
If you’re a meatball freak, you owe it to yourself to have the great Shanghai version called Lion’s Head, here known as Braised Meat Ball with Vegetables ($8.95). The finely-ground meatballs have an incredibly velvety texture. They come in a clay pot with copious brown sauce and lots of baby bok choy. The order-ahead pièce de résistance is a dish called Salt Pepper Pig Knuckle ($20.95), a bronze-skinned wonder with crispy skin and buttery fat lubricating the succulent flesh on the bone. If there are at least four of you, it is worth calling ahead for this one.
My favorite Shanghai dish is actually vegetarian: tofu skin knotted into bow ties and stir-fried with with fresh green soy beans and pickled greens, here called Stir Fried Pickled Vegetable with Soy Bean and Bean Curd Leaf ($8.95). Shanghai House’s classic rendition is delightful. I am a big fan of Shanghai pickled greens, so I also adore this rest shredded pork, pickled greens and soy beans in a luscious broth full of chewy hand cut noodles ($7), a perfect lunch. The bow ties of tofu skin make an appearance in another great soup called Ham, Fresh Pork and Bamboo Shoots in Casserole ($11.95), which is a meaty, restorative chicken-and-pork-broth that works as a soup course in a larger meal.
My one disappointment six years later is that the stir-fried lettuce– smooth little romaine leaves– did not have the kick of salted bean curd, the way it was prepared then.
Have a cup of hot, rice wine soup with black sesame mochi balls to end your Shanghai meal.
Classical music plays in the small dining room of Shanghai House, which has just a handful of tables. A floor-to-ceiling glass facade makes the room feel airy. Remember to bring cash. No credit cards are accepted by Kam Yuen Lu, a former Wu Kong chef, and his wife Teresa Xi, who run their little restaurant by themselves. May they continue to do it so well.
3641 Balboa Street, San Francisco 415 831-9288 Open Wednesday through Monday for lunch and dinner. Closed on Tuesdays.