Tina, a tall, gracious waitress at Shanghai Taste, is scrolling through fish photos on her phone. It’s my fault. I had asked her what species the kitchen uses to prepare its “salty crispy fish,” a plate of small, sinuous, head-on sea creatures that look like they were battered and fried while still gliding through brackish waters.
Internet photos are the common language between a diner and a server who don’t share the same mother tongue. Tina tells me the slender specimens are called “crystal fish,” but I later decide that’s a mistake based on a poor Internet translation. What I think she means is that they’re “silver fish” — not the pests that feast on our books, but tiny, translucent critters that can be eaten whole, head, cartilage, fins, everything. When encased in a cornstarch batter, the silver fish go down like crispy, immature mackerel, light and a little oily.
I keep knocking back these golden squiggles as if they’re French fries of the sea. And yet, “salty crispy fish” is not the dish that defines Shanghai Taste, a standard-issue outpost in Rockville’s Woodley Gardens shopping center. The dish that attracts diners is a bamboo steamer loaded with xiao long bao, those bundles of molten liquid better known as soup dumplings, or just XLB.
Wei Sun, co-owner and chef of Shanghai Taste, prepares three kinds of soup dumplings. Two are the familiar steamed varieties, the pleated, bottom-heavy dough balls that remind me of artist Juan Munoz’s bronzed human sandbags that perpetually argue outside the Hirshhorn. The steamed dumplings can be ordered with either a pork or crab-and-pork filling, each a minor engineering miracle. The thin wrapper on the pork dumpling somehow holds back a wall of hot, cloudy stock enriched with pig skin. The crab meat bullies the pork in the other dumpling, thanks to a cache of “mustard,” that yellowish gland with the intrusive temperament of Kanye West.
As flush and flavorful as the steamed dumplings are, the pan-fried version (sheng jian bao) is the one that generates all the traffic to Shanghai Taste, like a Rockville variation on the baseball faithful who flock to Iowa in “Field of Dreams.” The pan-fried preparation, available only on Saturday and Sunday, is more a genetic mutant of the XLB dumpling than a subspecies. Its skin is thicker, yeastier and chewier than its steamed cousin, and it comes sprinkled with sesame seeds for a mild nuttiness. It’s a soup dumpling crossed with a fluffy Chinese pork bun, and when drizzled with a ginger-black vinegar condiment, the pan-fried pocket establishes an identity all its own, crusty and less soupy than the steamed versions.
A native of Shanghai, Sun has become a virtuoso of the soup dumpling, a snack that requires the meticulous, hairspring balance of a seven-jewel watch. If there are better designed and better balanced XLB than those at Shanghai Taste — the wrapper’s just thick enough to contain the juicy contents without gumming up the works — I’ve yet to find them. You could argue that Sun’s pan-fried dumplings tilt the balance too much toward the outer skin, but that’s basically intellectual puffery, which your taste buds will blithely ignore.
You can ignore the first few pages of the menu at Shanghai Taste — much of it littered with Chinese-American favorites or Sichuan dishes outside of Sun’s wheelhouse — and skip straight to the chef specials and Shanghai-style plates. The kitchen cranks out more than 100 dishes in the latter two categories alone. I’ve sampled more than 20 and have found only a couple of clunkers, both savory pork pastries whose fillings are entombed in dense, floury shells. I wouldn’t exactly call the cold marinated beef a bust, but the plate of sweetened shank slices dehydrates in the refrigerator, requiring a dip or two of soy sauce to reanimate.
Sugar, used in sparing amounts, speaks eloquently in Sun’s take on Shanghai cooking. I first noticed its presence in a garlic-sauce noodle soup with pork, a bowl of long, slurpable strands submerged in a broth that manages to find the sweet spot where sugar and braised garlic intersect. Even better: The soup resolves to a small pleasant burn. Other bowls — a beef noodle soup, a noodle soup with spiced pork — dial up the hot-sauce doses, but only enough to scare the heat-sensitive. The burn, while steady and somewhat stinging, merely provides a backbeat to these full-throated soups.
The toothsome wheat noodles, I discovered, are not made in-house. Neither are the wontons, whose wrappers are so soft and diaphanous they practically melt in your mouth like pats of warmed butter. If I was frustrated to learn the wontons are store-bought — I had been told otherwise at the table — my distress lasted only until my next bite of the frilly pork purses in a garlic-laced hot sauce. The sheer shumai skins are also rolled out elsewhere, but they come packed with house-made sticky rice mixed with soy, mushrooms and pork. In Sun’s preparation, the rice mixture appears to bubble to the surface of the shumai, like water in a gurgling fountain; this dumpling dares you to embrace its righteous chewiness.
Shanghai Taste’s decor consists of a mirrored wall and paper sheets affixed to virtually every vertical surface, each one describing dishes in Chinese characters only. Don’t let the signs prompt a FOMO attack. I was told all the dishes on the handwritten sheets are also available on the English-language menu, including such surprises as the sticky rice cake with shredded pork (cabbage has never tasted so good), the fried and braised duck (whose slices, at once sweet and salty, are almost candy) and of course the salty crispy fish.
Personally, I suffer from a serious case of FOMO every time I think about the dozens of dishes I have yet to order at Shanghai Taste.
1121 Nelson St., Rockville, in the Woodley Gardens shopping center. 301-279-0806.
Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, 2.7 miles from the restaurant.
Prices: Appetizers and entrees, $1.75-$19.95.