Consider that booth by the door. The couple dining there might have had the same meal half a century ago, and at nearly the same prices. Egg foo yung, chow mein, fried rice the first Chinese adventure for many mid-century Americans.
A few booths away, a more authentic China is displayed on the table: bits of chicken cured like ham Yang Zhou style, it's called plus a dish of fresh green soybeans tossed with minced cabbage or perhaps cured duck gizzards; and for entrees, seasonal vegetables listed in Chinese calligraphy on the wall, stir-fried with pale slivers of pork.
A weight-conscious couple might be seen poring over the "Healthy Choice" section, with its steamed vegetables, optional chicken or seafood, and sauce on the side. Maybe even sushi from the Japanese listings.
Then there are the groups like mine, gathered at a large round table in the rear, ordering more food than can fit on the Lazy Susan. We've begged to see every different menu in the house the regular one, the dim sum list, the carryout menu. We've even cajoled the hostess into translating the wall signs. (Though the management is printing comprehensive new menus this winter, until now Shanghai Cafe has been one of those mysterious restaurants with separate ones for Chinese and non-Chinese.)
What we discover is that one of the tiniest kitchens in the metropolitan area can produce nearly 200 dishes, some of which I've never seen before.
A tank in the rear of the dining room is overpopulated and murky, but the fish from it netted by a man in boots, ski vest and baseball cap, which suggests the kitchen needs heating tastes as sweet and succulent as if it had just been swimming in the open sea. And unbelievable as it sounds, this kitchen not much bigger than a walk-in closet produces its own noodles as well as eight kinds of dumplings available all day, not just at lunch. So it's hard not to order too much. On the other hand, it would be nearly impossible to rack up a bill as high as $20 per person, and the staff will cheerfully box the leftovers.
If this begins to sound like the ideal Chinese restaurant, a few warnings would be timely. Despite the mirrored wall, lace curtains, glass-topped pink tablecloths and silk flowers, this is a bare and drab dining room, with shabby carpeting, hanging scrolls curling at the edges and even, on one occasion, an employee sleeping in a rear booth. I've never seen a staff larger than one waitress, a hostess and the manager in the dining room at a time at least not awake. And the cooking is rustic, unrefined, though often delicious.
The awning outside still sports Shanghai Cafe's old name, Sichuan Cafe (the owner changed it a year ago when he hired a new chef from Shanghai). The restaurant makes its own stocks chicken, pork, beef and a combination called Yang Chow but they are faint and weak. And the cooking is uneven, sometimes heavy-handed with the cornstarch. It's not a restaurant for the impatient or the finicky.
To me, though, Shanghai Cafe is an antidote to the dozens of trendy, slick and often short-lived Bethesda restaurants, which are more alike in their ordinariness than their menu themes suggest. On each visit to Shanghai Cafe I've found more dishes to like, and I have dozens yet to explore.
The appetizers I'd keep on my permanent list are boiled dumplings in spicy sauce flat, slippery noodles with a bit of meat filling and a tart, hot soy and sesame sauce and Spicy & Salty Fried Chicken Wings, which are hacked into bite size, floured and spiced, then crisply fried and topped with sauteed onions. Crispy chicken Shanghai style is another matter more like ham, as is Yang Zhou chicken. They'd be more exciting as an ingredient than as a stand-alone dish. If you order crispy walnuts, with their spiced sugar glaze, you may want to call for another portion at dessert.
Among the dim sum, Shanghai-style steamed pork buns are filled with a spoonful of broth as well as meat, so you have to bite into them carefully or pop them whole into your mouth. They're more doughy than necessary, just as pan-fried won tons are chewy and shu mai have starchy fillings. The various vegetable dumplings have more zest, and scallion pancakes have just the right crunch and chewiness.
Soups cover all the usual bases won ton, hot and sour, crab-asparagus as do noodle dishes: chow foon, lo mein, rice noodles and rice cakes. The most distinctive are the house-made Shanghai noodles, alone or in Yang Chow soup. They seem as long as clotheslines: a challenge to serve, but fun to eat.
Among the entrees are everyday Sichuan, Hunan and Cantonese stir-fries, but there are greater treasures. Shredded chicken with spicy pickled vegetables plays Ping-Pong in your mouth, as the mild flavor of the tender white meat bounces against the peppered brininess of crisp cabbage and carrots, a kind of crunchy sauerkraut. Shrimp dishes are not nearly as fresh as the fish. But pork dishes are consistently good. Wu-Shi spareribs are more than the usual glazed and barbecued version; they're soft and well-marinated, served on a bed of wonderful spinach.
Vegetables are key. Eggplant is delicious when it's thickly sliced and fried with a glaze of sugar and garlic, but it's more dazzling as a soupy platter of nearly disintegrating peppered and vinegared strips with pork Yu Shang style. String beans are bright and crunchy yet infused with their mild soy-sauced (Shanghai) or chili-spiced (Sichuan) seasonings. Homey and subtly addictive is the pork with "yellow vegetable" or the "lima beans" actually green soybeans &3150; with pork, dry shrimp and ribbons of bean curd cut to resemble tripe. Even cauliflower is teamed with pork, to the benefit of both. Dinner ends with the all-American fortune cookie. Or maybe another order of crispy walnuts. And surely a collection of cardboard boxes to carry home enough for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Shanghai Cafe 7026 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 301/986-5140. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; lunch specials Monday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. V, MC. Reservations suggested. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $1.10 to $4.95, entrees $4.95 to $16.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip $12 to $15 per person.
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