I know without doubt that Shanghainese cuisine is quite different from other forms of Chinese cooking but I can’t quite put my finger on why. The only things I can think of are that they’re a little more liberal with the spiciness as well as the sweet while Cantonese cooking tends to stick with savory. For me, Shanghaiese food represents something familiar but not too familiar. Just like every region of China has a different Chinese dialect, each region also has their own unique style of cooking.
One of my favorite Shanghainese restaurants is Chen’s Shanghai Restaurant, a regular spot in the rotation for my friends and I since the food is very good without punching our wallets in the face. Like quite a few places in Richmond, Chen’s is all about inexpensive, simple and delicious. Actually, it’s in the same strip mall as Happy Date and all the usual comments about the awful parking lot still apply. The decor consists of standard issue Asian restaurant furniture and signs loosely taped to the walls. Clearly, their focus is on the food.
The menu isn’t as extensive as some other Shanghainese restaurants in Richmond but all the essentials and favorites are here. To order, you have to fill out one of these sheets like at an all-you-can-eat sushi joint. If, like me, you have trouble reading Chinese, they also have them in English.
I like the start any meal at a Shanghainese place with hot and sour soup ($7.00), which is a thick broth with ingredients like tofu, shrimp, pork and bamboo. As the name implies, the broth is seasoned with chili oil and vinegar, giving the dish it’s signature hue and flavor. My dad, a spicy food connoisseur, and I love this soup and we’re usually disappointed with most restaurant’s interpretations because it’s almost always a lot of sour and not very much hot, probably because some folks can’t handle the heat. Chen’s soup has a decent amount of spice to it and they’re very generous with the ingredients.
Green onion pancakes ($3.25) are another staple of Shanghainese cuisine. The outer layer is nicely browned, crispy and flaky while the inside is soft, moist and chewy, which is great because a lot of places treat these like cardboard. Unfortunately, the green onion flavor is a little too subtle for me since I really like the flavor of green onions. I didn’t see much green anywhere.
This is a cold noodle dish that I don’t remember the name for but I do recall that the translation was…inaccurate to say the least. The clear, flat noodles are served chilled, dressed with peanut sauce, chicken and cucumber. This was the first time I’ve had this dish as well at the suggestion of my friend Matt, who insisted that we order this after he discovered it. The noodles have a nice bouncy texture and the combination of peanut sauce, chicken and cucumber works really well together. My only complain is maybe go easy on the sauce.
Finally, we have one of my favorite childhood dishes, Shanghai-style pan fried thick noodles ($7.25). When said in Cantonese, the phrase for “Shanghai fried noodles” sounds a lot like “Shanghainese Profanities”, which is what I still call this dish to this day because I find it hilarious. Even before I learned to appreciate other parts of Shanghainese (and Chinese food in general, most of which I did not like as a child), I loved this particular plate of greasy noodles. This is one of those things that’s so simple but just works. The noodles are similar to Japanese udon, which you can use instead of Shanghainese noodles in a pinch. Thick, chewy noodles infused with a combination of soy, hoisin (which gives it that sweet note), and cornstarch amongst other things that give everything so much flavor that this is one of the few dishes where I think you could lose the meat and it would still be just as good. There’s some gai lan and cabbage mixed in for texture and veggie content but clearly this isn’t the healthiest of menu items. Just enjoy it and don’t look at the plate after you’re done.
You’ll notice we didn’t order the xiao long bao. Let me explain. After we arrived, my friends and I remembered we were going for Shanghainese food again later tonight for some birthdays. Therefore, we decided to leave the XLB for the restaurant we were going to later that night rather than order the ones at Chen’s, since we’ve already had them plenty of times before and already know they’re excellent. The skins are nice and thin, holding in a huge amount of scalding hot, deliciously flavorful broth. The pork filling is nicely seasoned and they’re usually made fresh. Highly recommended. I’ll update this post with pictures of them next time I give Chen’s a visit.
Summary: My favorite Shanghainese place was this restaurant with a pink awning on Granville that closed down a few years ago but since then, Chen’s has filled the go-to Shanghainese restaurant void admirably. They get a little busy at peak hours, during which the parking lot is exponentially worse but it speaks of the quality of the food when people are willing to brave a parking lot more annoying than a Justin Bieber x Nickelback collaboration. There are one or two restaurants in Vancouver I consider better than Chen’s at Shanghai cuisine but they’re not much better and they’re considerably more expensive. At Chen’s, $30 will feed a party of four, like it did on this particular day. Chen’s is a fantastic example of Shanghainese cuisine that won’t break the bank.