Thankfully, culinary heartbreak doesn’t happen very often, but it’s something we did experience in New York’s Chinatown on May 7. Last year, we read in the NY Times that the grandson of the favorite Chinese restaurant of my youth – 456 Shanghai Cuisine – revived the family’s establishment. And we got a chance to go! Unfortunately, the legendary fried yellow fish with tofu curd skin, a dish that still came up in conversations with my father and brother 30 years after the fact, didn’t match my memory. Still, it’s not like we were in Sioux Falls. We were in New York City, surrounded by opportunities, and in under an hour, we were able to set aside the sadness and rectify the situation by visiting Joe’s Shanghai.
Joe’s Shanghai dates to 1995, when Kiu Sang “Joe” Si and business partner Mei Ping “Barbara” Matsumura opened the first branch in Flushing, Queens. The duo now has three New York City locations and three more branches in Japan. In Chinatown, the bustling, noisy dining room houses neon green and pink tubing overhead, dozens of framed publications recommending the restaurant, and photos of the owners with celebs like Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Shanghai Pork Soup Dumplings sported rustic skins and contained savory, soup-swaddled pork nuggets. We dipped in a balanced sauce of soy, vinegar, ginger strands and chile sauce, which contributed a lingering kick.
Sautéed Seasonal Vegetable, supposedly pea shoots, but actually ong choy, were especially good, with crunchy hollow stems and greens luxuriating in garlicky likker.
One plate that took us by surprise touted Shanghai style rice cakes, some of the best in class. The discs had good chew, and thanks to a quick stir-fry in soy sauce and oil, achieved winning caramelization, thin strands of bamboo shoot, cabbage, squiggles of pork in a light starch batter, and sliced black mushrooms.
For “dessert,” Joe’s Shanghai provided oranges with our check. This is a common sight at Chinese restaurants, but also harkened back to my youth, reminding me of the go-to post-soccer snack in elementary school, across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
It was a nostalgic night in Chinatown. The only thing missing was the egg cake lady in her tiny silver stall, and the chance to watch the chicken dance at the bygone neighborhood arcade.