Shanghai House: Worth the wait 

A tiny, excellent, Shanghai-style restaurant has opened across the street from the Balboa Theater and I’ve had two scrumptious meals there.

Good thing that my trusted informant reserved a table for six of us one night. The small dining room was full by 7 p.m. and people waited outside on the sidewalk for one of a handful of tables.

As we arrived, little plates of mouth-numbing cabbage salad ($3.95) seasoned with Sichuan pepper and mild chile oil came to the table. Very drunken chicken ($8.50), a flavorful free-range bird with moist, velvety flesh, marinated in a lot of Xiaoxing rice wine, helped revive the tongue.

A soothing starter, vegetarian goose ($4.25), was one of several dishes that showed off the kitchen’s skill with tofu skin. This tender cake of many thin layers, pan-crisped on top, with a meaty mushroom filling didn’t taste anything like goose (it never does), but it was lovely.

The broth in ham, fresh pork and bamboo shoot soup cooked in a clay pot ($8.95) had tremendous depth of flavor, lots of meat and exceptionally tender, multi-layered ribbons of tofu skin tied in knots.

Informant ordered the star dish of the meal, salt andpepper pig knuckle ($18.95), one day ahead. It was a pork shank with crackling crisp skin and voluptuous, fork tender flesh. By the end of the meal we picked all the crunchy bits of skin off the pork knuckle, knowing that you can’t leave something as good as this for the texture-destroying take-home container.

We finished with refreshing braised lettuce stems with salted bean curd ($4.25), and perfect potstickers ($4.95) with soft, house-made wrappers, sweet, juicy pork filling and one handsome golden side.

I so enjoyed this meal that I came back for lunch with a Shanghai friend a couple of days later. He ordered two spectacular dishes to start that complemented each other. He knew that bean curd puff — No. 22 — ($4.25) would be juicy hunks of wheat gluten in a haunting sweet and sour sauce scented with five-spice powder and pine nuts. It reminded me of a warm bread salad. A pure white salad of shredded jellyfish, No. 29, with crunchy shreds of salted daikon, was bright in flavor and exciting, infused with the flavor of green onions. Those two dishes alone make for a brilliant lunch.

Then we ate vegetarian steamed dumplings ($4.95) filled with nicely seasoned dark greens and perfect potstickers ($4.95) with soft house-made wrappers, sweet, juicy pork filling and one golden side. Fried tofu and glass noodle soup ($5.95) turned out to be full of delightful little tofu puffs and the broth was uncharacteristically cloudy, full of pickled vegetables, bamboo shoots and black mushrooms. I thought it was rich and interesting, but it was the only leftover that my Shanghai friend didn’t take home.

I like everything about Shanghai House: its clean, white, unadorned walls, an all-glass front that lets in light during the day and an illuminated view of the Balboa Theater at night and the fact that the restaurant is run by only three people. Former Wu Kong chef Kam Yuen Lu and a helper are in the kitchen, and his wife Teresa Xi is in the dining room. You know who is cooking your meal and the possible wait is well worth the reward of the food.

Shanghai House

Location: 3641 Balboa St. (at 36th Avenue), San Francisco

Contact: (415) 831-9288

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Tuesday

Price range: $3.95 to $18.95

Recommended dishes: Salt and pepper pig knuckle (must order ahead), potstickers, bean curd puff, jellyfish salad, braised meatballs with vegetables

Credit cards: Cash only

Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman’s San Francisco Food Lover’s Pocket Guide is available at bookstores now. Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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Patricia Unterman

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