Since my usual weekend cohorts were all planning to be out of town or spending time with their family over the long weekend, I thought I would be spending a non-social four days at home, but it turns out that lunches with others were in the works, starting with a tweet up at Shanghai 456. Carmen (@foodkarmablog) started things off by tweeting that she wanted to go for Shanghainese and everything snowballed into a small tweet up with Jerry (@Zoomjer), Joe (@stirfryjoe) and Susan (@mollyseats). Let’s just start off by saying I love tweet ups! I’ve gone to a few now and met some really awesome and interesting people. And I haven’t had a bad experience yet – although the first one was a little nerve-wracking (felt like the first day of school = “what if no one likes me???”) – but I would still definitely recommend going to one if you have the opportunity!
Shanghai 456 is in a weird location as it is in the cafeteria of the Edmonton Flying Club so there’s not a lot of signage with the restaurant name and the inside is not exactly stylish. It looks like a pretty nondescript cafeteria but sometimes we’re really just here for the food.
I feel like every time anyone brings up Shanghainese food, the first thing everyone mentions are “xiao long bao” which are steamed dumplings (mainly pork) with pockets of soup. I remember the first time I had these in Edmonton – my teenage mind was blown by this explosion of soup flavor and it stayed with me for a very long time, but that restaurant closed not long after opening and I never had “xiao long bao” of that awesomeness in Edmonton again until 456’s chef started making them (first at Shanghai Grill and then when he opened up 456). So let’s start off the review with the always anticipated “xiao long bao”.
I’ve been to Shanghai 456 multiple times and it ranks as one of my absolute favorite places in the city so there might be a small bias but trust me you can’t go and then not order the “xiao long bao”. So did these “xiao long bao” live up to previous ones? Uh yeah – I love that these are consistently delicious, but I guess it’s important to make sure the dish you’re known for is good?
We ordered two types, the kind with only pork as well as the pork and crab ones – I do prefer the pork ones over the pork and crab ones as the crab adds an element that changes the texture of the filling. Both types had super thin skin wrapped around soupy goodness – an errant chopstick means poking a hole into the skin and losing all that soup (so be careful when picking these up). I always have to remind myself to take a small bite and drink the soup before taking a bite otherwise it means spraying the person sitting across from you with soup and who wants to lose the soup (it’s the best part)! Sadly we were all so full that I think one or two were left behind since once they get cold, the soup congeals and it’s not as good. So I definitely recommend eating these as soon as they hit the table!
Now that I’ve made myself hungry – what else did we order? The single cold dish we ordered was the marinated beef and jellyfish combo. Don’t cringe when you read jellyfish! If I didn’t tell you it was jellyfish, you’d probably think it was a crunchy noodle. There is no real taste to the jellyfish and it’s really all about the texture. It comes with pickled veggies under the jellyfish (which I am obviously in love with right now) and they added a little vinegar taste to the jellyfish if you had them together. The marinated beef was quite good and it’s just thinly sliced beef that has been marinated in a sauce (not sure what is in it) overnight or even a few days. I am making assumptions on the marinating time by basing it on the version my Mom makes. Her version involves cooking the beef in the sauce and then marinating overnight and slicing to order (so to speak), so the leftover unsliced piece can end up being marinated for a few days.
After this came more dumplings! We had the beef potstickers (wor tip) and again they are filled with soup but a beefy soup. These are pan fried instead of steamed so you get a lovely little crunchy-ness on the skin. I forgot the small bite and sip rule and lost a little bit of soup before I caught myself – luckily there was no spraying of anyone else. ;p If someone doesn’t eat pork, these are a nice alternative to the “xiao long bao”.
We also had the weekend special dumplings (normally only available on Sundays) – I don’t really know what to call them in English but they are called “Sang Jeen Bao” in Cantonese. They are in a thicker wrapper and filled with a mixture of pork and beef (I think) and onions. The wrapper is slightly more doughy but not super doughy – I almost wonder if they are steamed first and then seared to give it a crunchy outside. I really enjoyed them as they trigger some kind of feel good childhood memory for me (the memory is fuzzy but the feeling is there) but I know the thicker skin is not to everyone’s taste.
In addition to the dumplings we also had two noodle dishes – one in a soup and the another fried. The soup noodle is the dan dan noodle and it’s labeled as a spicy noodle with a peanut sauce. I’ve never been a huge fan of dan dan noodles because while I like peanut butter, I don’t like peanut butter flavor in soup (it confuses my taste buds – they want to know where jam is). The texture of the noodle is nice and the soup is not nearly as spicy as one would think, it’s actually slightly tangy and the peanut flavor is what you taste more of. This dish has gotten much better compared to when they first opened as my first experience felt like I was drinking liquid peanut butter (yuck!) and there was no spicy flavor at all, but I would say if you like peanut-y flavors, it’s worth a try.
The Shanghai fried noodles are decent and taste like pretty much any of the other versions you can get in the city so not super exciting and I probably wouldn’t order it again unless my dining companions really wanted it. I prefer to get the fried rice cake dish instead if we wanted something starchy.
Our last entree like dish was the braised pork belly, which I have seen and never tried before in my life. The versions that I’ve seen on tv and in photos are all very brown so imagine my surprise when this bright red dish came to our table. I had half a slice and it was pretty delicious! The fat is a little (maybe a lot) overwhelming and I don’t think I could consider eating more than a slice before my arteries start to protest the amount of fat ingested (my Dad would love it though!). The vegetables (yu choy) were cooked with garlic (possibly stir fried in the wok?) and great with the pork belly as it made things seem less fatty – which probably is just a perception thing (I ate this slice of fat and then a few vegetables, so it can’t be that fatty?!).
Moving on to dessert (yay dessert!) – we ordered the lotus puff pastry filled with black sesame. The name is a mouthful but man oh man are these ever amazing! They are these fried pockets of yum and I suggest eating them while they’re warm. There are layers of puff pastry and then once you break it open, the black sesame is there is waiting for you to take a bite. Seriously, these are one of my favorite things at Shanghai 456 – I’ve ordered them to go and then eaten it in the car on the drive home after being stuffed to max at dinner.
We were also offered a free dessert of a coconut and red bean jelly (no photo due to the usual reason of forgetfulness) – The layer of coconut over the red bean layer reminded me of the iced red bean drinks you can get at some Chinese restaurants. This is a childhood favorite so it was a straight up hit for me.
Building 18, 49 Airport Road
So What Would Argenplath Pay?
The total bill came out to $100 with tax and tip ($86 pre-tip), so at $20/person and being so full that I couldn’t eat again until 8pm meant I was a happy camper. I feel like most of my lunch experiences are in the $20/person range and dinner being slightly more expensive (not much more). The pork “xiao long bao” is $6.50 for 6 and it’s not something you can easily make at home – the process is time consuming and I’m sure your time is worth way more than that. Don’t even think that frozen is comparable because the frozen ones have much thicker wrappers and no soup – what would “xiao long bao” be without soup?
Overall most menu items are under the $15 range unless you’re going in for dinner and ordering larger dinner items like the crispy duck dish (that’s another post) but I think the majority of those are still under $20. I feel like you can get away with having lunch for under $15 and still feel comfortably full (no food coma) but it really depends on what you order. I’ve seen people just order “xiao long bao” and eat all six for lunch – I don’t think I’ve ever eaten 6 in one sitting but I imagine that’s pretty filling!
The menu is pretty small (2 sides of an 8″x11.5″ sheet) and one side is the dinner menu (mainly set dinners and in Chinese only). But don’t worry if you don’t read/speak Chinese – the “xiao long bao” is listed with an English translation, plus every table will probably have a steamer of it so you can even just point if you’re so inclined… So if you’re in the mood for great Shanghainese food, consider heading out to the city centre airport and stopping by Shanghai 456. You won’t regret ordering these soupy dumplings of awesomeness!