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All the Ingredients for a Shanghai Feast

A tiny San Gabriel establishment offers authentic flavors and some imported fixings.

April 01, 1999|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Where do you get really good Chinese food? Sometimes in places as obscure as the Shanghai Snack Bar, wedged in the back of an unimposing San Gabriel mall. It's so small that you can't see it from the street; it has only six tables.

Yet those tables are usually full. People who know Shanghai cuisine come here for authentic Shanghainese dishes, some using ingredients imported from Shanghai.

What's Shanghai food like? It emphasizes simple flavors, says owner George Zhou; the Shanghainese are not terribly fond of hot peppers or oily food. Many of their dishes retain a natural look and delicate flavor because they're cooked without soy sauce.

There's a regular menu in English. The daily specials, given on blue and yellow placards on a mirrored wall, are in Chinese, so you may need to ask for translations.

Eating off the wall (so to speak) back in January, I had a dish of fresh bamboo shoots air-freighted from Shanghai and a dark green leafy vegetable called chi tsai. These were winter bamboo shoots, shorter than spring shoots, cut into slim blocks that looked like ivory piano keys nestled in the dark emerald, rather bland chi tsai. At $9.95, this was the most expensive dish I had in several visits to the Shanghai Snack Bar, which suggests how low the prices are.

Chi tsai was also combined with bean curd in a light, spa-like soup. Next came big, fluffy pork meatballs, dark with soy sauce and subtly aromatic with ginger, served on a bed of pea shoots. Instead of rice or noodles, I accompanied them with thin oval rice cakes stir-fried with spinach, nappa cabbage and pork. Fat white Shanghai-style noodles are available the same way.

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The table condiments do not include soy sauce. That black liquid in what looks like a soy sauce container is Shanghai vinegar. There's also a pot of red chile paste; you add a bit of vinegar to your rice cakes or noodles and, if you like, a dash of chile paste.

Shanghai vinegar gives an interesting wine-like nuance, particularly noticeable in the Shanghai-style sweet and sour spareribs. These bear no resemblance to the usual Chinese American fried ribs combined with pineapple chunks and green pepper in a thick clear sauce. The Shanghai ribs are not fried but simmered in soy sauce, then seasoned with black vinegar and sugar. Simple as this sounds, the taste is awesome.

As a special one day there was a small whole freshwater fish with green onions in a sauce as dark as the rib sauce but with a milder flavor. Sauteed shrimp, served absolutely plain, needed no embellishment--but their nakedness revealed that the black veins had not been removed. From hours spent at the kitchen sink, I understand the labor involved in this task. Nevertheless, it would improve the dish cosmetically.

Only a dash of salt and sugar seasoned tah-ko tsai, a winter green popular in Shanghai. When I saw this mysterious vegetable in its raw state, I recognized it as the Cantonese tat soi.

Another specialty vegetable, yu nai, is frozen taro imported from Shanghai. Cooked very simply, with a few shreds of green onion and a rather bland sauce, it resembles a small gray potato.

Some people stop by here just for takeout won ton and dumplings, and there's a deli counter filled with such tidbits. They're nicest, though, when fresh from the kitchen. Steamed dumplings filled with pork and shrimp offer a surprise--soup that bursts out when you take the first bite. Handmade and daintily twisted, they're meant to be dipped in black vinegar mixed with ginger shreds.

For a light lunch, you might be perfectly satisfied with a clay pot that contains shrimp won ton in broth garnished with fine omelet shreds, hair-like seaweed and cilantro. The broth is so lightly seasoned you may wish to add salt.

Cold dishes to order as appetizers include firm, brown-skinned bean curd cut in tiny dices and mixed with finely chopped green vegetables and sesame oil. You'll also be served tea right off, in a foam cup.

And if you want dessert, there are several sweet dim sum, none more charming than a white cake embedded with red bean paste and decorated with walnuts, slices of candied plum and a cherry.

BE THERE

Shanghai Snack Bar, 534 E. Valley Blvd., No. 10, San Gabriel (just west of San Gabriel Boulevard). (626) 280-4676. Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and from 10:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Lot or street parking. No alcohol. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$25. What to Get: Shrimp won ton in hot pot, Shanghai-style spareribs and meatballs, winter bamboo shoots with chi tsai, steamed dumplings, stir-fried rice cakes.

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