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RESTAURANTS | Counter Intelligence

Mystery Dishes Quite a Mouthful

Want a little 'ed' with your 'mapsh' beans? The names, and some dishes, aren't recognizable, but tasty entrees are the real thing at Shanghai Ding's Kitchen.


Shanghai Ding's Kitchen was recommended by someone who had lived in China and said this restaurant was the real thing. I have to believe that. I've had quite a few dishes I've never seen before--some excellent, some quite strange, some both--at this sweet, friendly little place.

It's located in Alhambra a block west of the corner of New Avenue. The Valley Square Mall's parking lot is surrounded by shops, and parking can get tight, especially on weekends, but there are usually a few spaces down around the supermarket at the foot of the mall. Conveniently, that's close to Shanghai Ding's location.

Don't expect much decor here, just some red-and-gold banners and a Chinese-language menu of specials on the wall. As for the menus passed out at the tables, it seems as if the printer was working from a handwritten manuscript by someone with poor penmanship. The word "eel," for instance, sometimes becomes "ed." "Salty vegetable with mapsh beans" tastes like mashed peas--in effect, split pea soup in solid form. Topped with sesame oil, it's surprisingly tasty.

"Bean cured shin gooes" is the classic Shanghai dish mock goose--a mild vegetarian dish imitating stuffed goose neck. It's bean curd skin (tofu sheets) wrapped around bamboo shoots and mushrooms, all in a soy and star anise sauce, a flavor combination that appears over and over at this restaurant.

Shanghai is famous for its cold meat appetizers, and the menu has an appetizer section where you can find juicy chicken boiled in wine. There's also a selection of dumplings, such as Shanghai steamed dumplings: walnut-sized packets of paper-thin pastry with a juicy pork filling that come with a soy and ginger dipping sauce. You might think that rice dumplings are made with a rice pastry, but they turn out to be shiu mai-type open-top steamed dumplings with a rice filling so mildly flavored it's just a starch side dish.

Shanghai Ding's fried rice tends to be at the mushy end of the fried rice spectrum. For that matter, the Shanghai flavor fried noodles are not crisp at all--they're just spaghetti tossed in oil. Still, they have that sweetish, subtle flavor combination of bean sauce, anise and mushrooms.

And Shanghai taste fried rice cakes are not at all what you might expect. They're chewy coin-sized rice cakes mixed with Shanghai sauce, mushrooms and a few bits of beef. The dish has a charming look, something like the pattern of a tortoise shell.

This is a fairly large menu, and I've only touched the tip of the iceberg. For instance, I've only had one of the soups, West Lake soup, a cornstarch-thickened egg drop soup with bits of ground meat in it, slightly hot from pepper oil. I know it's named for West Lake in Sichuan Province, but it does look like a greenish lake (or, to be more poetic, jade).

"Fried filed eel" (perhaps fileted eel?) is thin strips of meaty, musky eel meat in a bean sauce with bits of shredded ginger. Shanghai ribs is primarily a dish for bone gnawers--it's bony rib tips in a mildly sweet sauce with bits of candied ginger and a hint of star anise. Crispy yellow fish with seaweed is not at all what I expected; it's chunks of flavorful yellow fish wrapped in seaweed, dipped in batter and fried. The seaweed gives the dish a mottled green dinosaur-egg look.

Shanghai is known for its fish dishes, but there's a real meat-eater's specialty here, Mandarin shank with skin brown sauce. It's a braised pork shank complete with skin, as the name indicates, and, as in any shank dish, you peel back a fair amount of fat to get at the meat, which is richly flavored, if a little dry (eat it with some of that meaty, anise-scented brown sauce). Underneath the mass of shank there are some pleasant bitter greens.

There are some familiar dishes here, such as sizzling beef (ferociously sizzling) with lots of onions and ginger. And vegetables are often treated with beguiling simplicity. One night there was a special of baby bok choy steamed with garlic, giving a clean, austere quality. Another evening, it was ultra-fresh green beans stir-fried with nothing but soy, like excellent home cooking.


Shanghai Ding's Kitchen, 1265 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 308-9299. Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $10-$26.

What to Get: Shanghai steamed dumplings, Shanghai taste fried rice cakes, Mandarin shank with skin brown sauce, crispy yellow fish with seafood.

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