Thursday, January 22, 2009

Solid, Jackson! Shanghainese food comes back to SF Chinatown.

If you had told me a year ago that there would be a full-on Shanghainese restaurant in one of the most venerable locations for a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown by this time in 2009, my reaction would be about the same as if you had told me we would have a black President of the United States with "Hussein" as his middle name. As it was once explained to me, most of the prime retail property in Chinatown is in the hands of the various Family Associations, networks of immigrants and their descendants from various parts of Guangdong province. First dibs on leases for good restaurant locations usually go to the Home Boys, who are inclined to serve up home cooking, which means Cantonese food.

640 Jackson Street was long the address of the Jackson Cafe, a Chinese and American (not Chinese-American) restaurant which sustained me in my salad days nearly 50 years ago. It was known for brusque waiters (including one who usually had a transistor radio glued to his ear, listening to a Giants game), local celebrities like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Lenny Bruce, and good cheap food from both sides of the menu. It eventually became "Jackson Pavillion," then "New Jackson Cafe," so you can imaging my reaction when it suddenly turned over as "Bund Shanghai" run by real Shanghainese people and offering a menu of real Shanghainese food. "Solid, Jackson!" (or something like that is what I said to myself). There hadn't been a Shanghainese restaurant anywhere near Chinatown for at least a decade, when one of the successors of Meilong Village/DPD gave up the ghost. It, even, was in the Kearny St. "Pale" as I call it, where non-Cantonese restaurants are tolerated, not on the hallowed ground of Jackson Street halfway up to Grant Avenue.

Bund Shanghai (known simply as "Shanghai Restaurant" in Chinese) opened on January 21, and I couldn't resist vetting the xiao long bao, of course, as well as a couple of my other Shanghainese breakfast standards, xian dou jiang and sheng jian bao. With the caveat that I was suffering from a head cold which somewhat impaired my tasting ability, here are my first reactions.
  • The xiao long bao were good, better than the mean for the San Francisco area, though not on a par with San Francisco's best (which are from a place called "Shanghai Dumpling King"). They were of the proper size and had the appropriate amount of "soup," but the wrappers were a touch too thick, and the broth slightly lacking in intensity.
  • The xian dou jiang (savory soy milk soup) was also good, but but not quite as good as the exemplary version at another San Francisco restaurant, Shanghai House (which serves up the best I have found in the Western Hemisphere). Bund Shanghai's version was well curdled, complex in flavor but neither salty nor spicy enough (but that could have been on account of my impaired taste buds).
  • The sheng jian bao (pan fried dumplings) were the biggest disappointment, partly because the Maître de said they were a house specialty. Like most American versions, they wimped out on the amount of pork fat in the broth, and they were barely browned on the bottoms instead of having the hell scorched out of them. They were fried bottoms down, not folded top down (Xiao Yang style) and garnished with sesame seeds. It's only fair to mention that I have yet to find a really satisfying serving pf sheng jian bao anywhere in the US.

I've yet to find anything earthshaking about Bund Shanghai , though there is still a lot on the "xiao chi" and dinner portions of the menu that I intend to check out. I'm inclined to cut the place some slack because it is a 15-minute walk for me; the other two Shanghainese restaurants in San Francisco (mentioned above) are an hour-long haul to the foggy Outer Richmond by bus, and, especially when it comes to breakast eats, it's all about location, location, location.

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