We’d been going to Shanghai Café for a long time, shortly after it first opened in (I believe) 1998. So that’s almost fifteen years that we’ve patronized what has become our go-to Chinese restaurant. Over the years, we’ve brought friends here. Almost without exception, they too have enjoyed the food. My daughter and son-in-law, both vegetarians, love this place, though their visits unfortunately (for them) are limited to when they’re in town. So, for inexplicable reasons, it’s surprising that I haven’t submitted a post on this restaurant until now. To make up for sins of past omission, this review will be longer than most.
The interior is not very large, an L-shaped dining room that seats no more than 50 people, I’d say, located in a strip mall in Factoria that has limited parking space. It is a family-run operation.
If available, we will often start off the meal with an appetizer of Spicy Cucumbers (☆☆☆½), thinly sliced and marinated in a sweet vinaigrette with red pepper flakes. The cucumbers are addictive, a nice balance of texture, sweetness and tartness.
One of their specialties is hand-shaven noodles (dao xiao mian), of which there are two kinds: wheat and barley green, the latter which has never registered a “green” taste to me and therefore more of a novelty than a distinct flavor. Chalk it up to my unsophisticated taste buds. Thicker than pulled noodles and irregularly shaped, shaved from a block of dough with a sharp knife or cleaver into boiling water, these noodles take center stage with their girth, chewy texture and wheaty taste. The hand shaven chow mein, in various combinations of meat and/or seafood, with generous amounts of vegetables, is really good. The vegetarian version (☆☆☆) is surprisingly savory with two kinds of mushrooms, eggs, napa cabbage, green onions, carrots and snow peas.
Another addictive entrée is Crispy Beef with Orange Flavor (☆☆☆☆), which many patrons order. Thin slices of beef are battered with cornstarch, deep-fried, then tossed with a cornstarchy sweet-spicy-savory sauce studded with fried dried red chile peppers and dried tangerine peel. In the past, we’ve always ordered the dish with the sauce and beef combined, but the voluminous sauce always seemed to inundate the beef, not to mention dampen their crispiness. Tonight, we ordered the dish with the sauce on the side so we could dip the beef pieces according to our own tastes, an option that may actually diminish the synergy of the two. So, while the unadorned beef was flavorful and very crispy, when combined, the cornstarch batter will thicken the sauce and yield a sweet and savory harmony. Maybe the trick is to mix them sparingly yourself.
Our first introduction to sautéed pea vines was at Noble Court in Bellevue many years ago. Since then, it has been a favorite vegetable whenever a Chinese restaurant offers it. Shanghai’s version (☆☆☆) is as good as any, sautéed in garlic sauce with whole softened cloves.
A recent addition to our usuals at Shanghai has been Pork and Bean Curd with Yellow Leek (☆☆☆). Pork slivers are combined with juliénned baked tofu and sweet slices of leek, a delicious and relatively non-saucy dish.
Some entrées we’ve enjoyed in the past merit special mention.
Shanghai’s white rice is perfectly acceptable, but we love their brown rice (☆☆☆½), which they label as “high nutrition.” At one time, we were told that it’s one of Lundberg’s blends.
When used in their fried rices, it has an appealing toothsome texture that characterizes the best versions. Our favorite is the Chicken Fried Brown Rice (☆☆☆).
Another specialty is the Bean Curd with Crispy Bean Sauce (☆☆☆☆), also vegetarian, but an umami bomb. Tofu cubes are sautéed in a savory, spicy and garlicky brown sauce, topped with fried minced soy beans and chopped cilantro, the dish a wonder of flavor and texture. This is one of those dishes that both vegetarians and meat-eaters will equally enjoy.
Bean Curd with Cabbage Casserole (☆☆☆☆) may sound nondescript; it is anything but. More like a soup than casserole, a rich chicken broth is chockfull of thin slices of chicken breast, Chinese ham (which I’ve never taken a liking to), meatballs, shrimp, squid, baby bok choy, green onions, shiitake, and mung bean noodles. On a cold day, there is nothing better than this soup to warm you up. The two of us can never finish the whole thing; there’s enough left over for another meal.
It goes without saying that we will continue to patronize Shanghai Café for as long as they’re around. And when our daughter’s family is in town, we make it a point to eat here since this is a restaurant whose food they crave. There are many more things on the menu. If we can bear to stray away from our favorites, we’ll have to try different things. With the talented chef in the kitchen, that shouldn’t be so difficult, should it?
Note: Shanghai Café is somehow affiliated with Shanghai Garden (both in Seattle and Issaquah), the menus in the others while similar are larger, but we have always liked the food here better.
12708 SE 38th St
Bellevue, WA 98006