If I could write one sentence over and over again, a la Bart Simpson at the blackboard, it would be: Stop bitching about Portland’s Chinese food. Seriously, stop.
Sure, our NYC-beloved Chinese-American joints are not the best, but that in no way covers the breadth of incredible regional spots across town. The fish balls in curry sauce at Kung Pow! The wonton soup with brisket at Kenny’s! The shrimp har gow at Pure Spice! The goubuli pork buns at Master Kong! Those perfect hand-made noodles at Stretch the Noodle!
And now, we can add Shanghai and its soup dumplings to the list. Newly opened in the former Karam restaurant space on Southwest 4th, owner Danny Chen (who also is behind the great Szechuan Chef on Southwest Macadam) has dedicated the menu to specialties from China’s biggest city.
Let’s address those xiao long bao (XLB) to start, on the menu here as Shanghai juicy steamed buns ($12.95). They’re packed with pork and a flavorful soup, and both times I ordered them, they had some of the thinnest dumpling skins in the game—delicate and utterly non-gummy, yet still managing to contain the hot broth within.
The menu is huge, featuring hard-to-find items like a Shanghai take on Russian borscht (made with tomatoes, not beets) and classics like sweet and sour pork spare ribs. Stick with dumplings, including adorable pumpkin-shaped sweet buns (so. cute.), soups, and meats, and you’ll do well. Also, if you work downtown, congrats on your new lunch spot.
Shanghai-style smoked fish ($13.95) is a regional staple. It’s lightly fried, but arrives cold and slicked in a smoky-flavored sauce that’s just a touch sweet and honestly something I want to bathe in. Braised pork meatballs ($16.95) arrived in a brown sauce with cabbage, massive and loosely bound together, succulent and full of flavor.
Along with the XLB, order the sweet rice and pork shiitake shao mai ($9.95), a fat-bottomed dumpling shaped like a volcano that erupts deliciousness. And while very simple, a plate of stir-fried snow pea leaves with garlic ($11.95) are delicate and worth the order.
You’ll see lots of tables huddled around a boiling cauldron-sized bowl of hot pot ($24.95): ladles full of goodies like pork wrapped with a thin layer of egg, pork skin, meatballs, and clear noodles. Do not attempt to order this for two people and add anything else to your meal, unless you’d like not one, but two giant to-go containers. Add a little Sriracha and you’re money.
Be warned, however: There are also a fair number of misses on the menu. Save the ma po tofu ($11.95) for a Szechuan-dedicated restaurant; here it had too much numbing chili and not enough spice. The wasabi black fungus mushrooms ($7.95) had a bizarre soggy texture and a weird watery sauce. The shepherd’s purse wontons ($9.95) arrived unexpectedly as a soup, floating in a brown, mostly flavorless broth.
With so many Chinese restaurants vacating historic Chinatown just across Burnside, it’s soothing to know that Shanghai is taking up the mantle on the westside.