Shanghainese cuisine is fundamentally light in flavor. It's not inundated with spices, preservatives are used sparingly, and while soy sauce is a common ingredient, dishes tend to veer to the sweet side. The food will leave a clean taste in your mouth.
For Chinese food novices, Shanghainese food is a gateway into the wonderful world of various Chinese regional cuisines. Because of its proximity to the Yangtze River, the chefs tend to take advantage of freshwater fish and crustaceans. Steamed carp and deep-fried fish are common dishes, as are juicy pork buns, braised pork, and rice cakes (the Asian kind, not the American diet food kind). There's nothing all that "bizarre." It's simple, it's accessible, and most importantly -- it's scrumptious.
Southern Mini Town
Southern Mini Town doesn't look like much. The waitstaff is terribly apathetic. You'll be put in a seat and thrown a menu. In many ways, that's just part of the charm of this establishment. It's common-man food -- devoid of unnecessary frills and flourishes. Stop in for lunch and go straight for the dishes unique to Shanghai. The seaweed fish is a marvelous take on battered fish. There's a green hue from the seaweed flakes and the fish, flaky and white, is deep-fried to a crisp. The lion head meatball is another classic and no, lions were not harmed in the making of this dish. The term is derived from how massive the meatball is. It's about the size of a man's fist, crammed into a bowl of napa cabbage (which apparently represents the mane of the lion). 833 W Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, CA 91776; (626) 289-6578. southernminitown.com
Mama Lu is arguably one of the most popular Shanghainese-inspired restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area. After all, they have four locations throughout the San Gabriel Valley; most of them are located within walking distance of each other. They're great for the xiaolongbao, those steamed soup dumplings that are wonderfully plump and succulent. There's a method to eating them: Put the dumpling on a spoon, bite the skin, suck the soup out, then eat the rest. Give the rice cakes a whirl. They're cut in discs and sauteed with a medley of bok choy, onions, and thinly sliced slivers of pork. 153 E Garvey Ave, Monterey Park, CA 91755; (626) 307-5700.
This restaurant, heavy on dark wood furniture, looks like it was lifted straight out of a movie about Shanghai in the 1920s. The main item to get here here is the shengjian bao, a substantial bun stuffed with pork and pan-fried so that the bottom, coated with sesame seeds, is browned and crisp. It's decorated with finely chopped green onions and black sesame seeds on top. Rice cakes are solid; give the spicy pork noodles a try. After all, this is a noodle joint. 800 W Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, CA 91775; (626) 281-2777.
J & J Restaurant
J & J is a xiaolongbao specialist and their star dish is the crab xiaolongbao, a soup dumpling stuffed with pork and freshly minced crab chunks.They're a champion of Shanghai comfort foods like fantastic, flaky scallion pancakes and broad, stir-fried noodles. The wait at J & J can get frustrating during peak hours: their xiaolongbao has quite a following, so plan on stopping by during off-hours.301 W Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, CA 91776; (626) 308-9238.