The menu at Bob’s Shanghai 66 is your friend, your enemy, your torturer, your lover. The single-page, two-sided document speaks a language all its own — multiple languages, in fact, to the point that sometimes you have little idea of what to expect when you order. To dine here is to channel your inner Buddha: Release all expectation and you will not suffer.
The first disorienting statement is splashed across the top of the menu: 30-plus items, many of which are dim-sum staples and standard northern China offerings, have been herded under one category and rebranded “Shanghainese Tapas.” (Warning: Some are available only on weekend mornings.) My initial instinct was to laugh, then sigh, then applaud the utter brilliance of employing this increasingly empty Spanish term to market a pan-Chinese menu to Western diners. This Nebraskan by way of Texas, with bloodlines tracing back to the Old World, takes off his cowboy hat in salute to Bob’s firm grasp of our true mongrel nature in America.
But back to the menu: The thing also advertises more than 120 dishes, simultaneously a critic’s dream and nightmare. My accounting doesn’t even include the various specials and drinks promoted via the dining room’s walls, where the line between decor and salesmanship is blurred beyond recognition. The sheer volume begins to take on a game-show quality: You’re not always sure what’s hiding behind any one description, even when you’ve sampled a similarly named dish many times before (imagine a mild mapo tofu with peas and carrots).
The signature item at Bob’s Shanghai — the one everyone raves about with an unanimity uncommon in this divisive town — is the xiao long bao, or soup dumpling. The trendier among us abbreviate the dish to, simply, XLB, as if it were a stock market symbol or a tagger’s signature. Whatever you call them, the squat, bottom-heavy soup dumplings are indeed delicious, as they release their tiny tsunami of pork stock on first bite. My only wish? That the wrappers were more delicate, not the chewy raincoat that repels the dipping sauce of black vinegar and sweet soy spiked with fresh ginger.
Whoever’s working the XLB station might take some pointers from the person rolling out dough for the shrimp-and-pork shumai, open-faced dumplings sheathed in droopy wrappers so translucent that each morsel resembles a small land-based creature shedding its skin. This wrapper conceals a liquid-and-protein center so luxurious you may soon ignore every other shumai in the metro area.
Unlike many Spanish tapas, the plates at Bob’s are shareable beyond a miserable little bite for everyone at the table. Sometimes you might wish otherwise. The short stack of scallion pancakes, so seductively flaky and browned, looks tempting enough to gorge on without stopping. But their alluring facade conceals cakes short on both onions and salt. The flaky red-bean-paste biscuits are likewise gorgeous to the eye, yet sweet and plodding on the palate. The fried bun roll, a.k.a. the Chinese doughnut, was just the opposite: almost savory without a dunk in its thick, sugary, condensed-milk sauce.
To best appreciate Bob’s Shanghai, you need to lock your preconceptions in a dark closet and scare them into submission (assuming you have any, of course). The spicy pig ears are offally good, these sporty strips of gelatinous meat and crisp cartilage, a textural marvel made more complex with a light slathering of house-made chili sauce and Chinese five spice. The cold eggplant may be the singularly most unappetizing dish I’ve ever seen — strips of the plant have been cooked down to something pale and sickly — but the soft flesh has surrendered itself fully to the salty, umami-rich garlic sauce in a way that compensates for all aesthetic deficiencies.
Some of my favorite dishes here are far removed from the tapas section (oh, but before I leave this topic, allow me to plug one last small plate: the slippery, fiercely spicy wontons with their gossamer wrappers). The cumin lamb entree has raised the bar for the Sichuan dish, layering fragrant slivers of garlic and a secondary jalapeno burn on top of the classic ma-la sensations. The added ingredients deepen the disturbing/thrilling capsaicin pain and momentary loss of feeling that defines this masochistic dish. The heat of the flounder fillet in hot chili sauce pales by comparison, but I still found it all too easy to get lost in the fish’s lush, steamed flesh touched with just enough Sichuan chili oil to invigorate the whole dish.
And speaking of getting lost, I should mention that some diners have dead-ended at the wrong 66. Bob’s Noodle 66 used to occupy the space now held down by Bob’s Shanghai 66; the former restaurant has now moved up the street to 316 N. Washington St., where it has more room to stretch its legs. The owners of Noodle 66 have a stake in the newer restaurant, and even have a connection to the esteemed Joe’s Shanghai in New York, which supplied some chefs for the Bob’s Shanghai in Rockville.
Confusing? Well, it’s almost as confusing as a critic trying to tackle a sometimes cryptic 120-item menu. By my count, I sampled 20 dishes during my visits to Bob’s Shanghai, more than enough to take the temperature of most restaurants. But here, I bypassed more than 80 percent of the menu, leaving me with a hollow feeling that my opinion might have changed had I tried another set of 20 dishes. And another, and another.
305 N. Washington St., Rockville.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, with a 0.6-mile walk to the restaurant.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Price range: $1.95 to $16.95.