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Rediscovering the Beauty of Shanghainese Comfort Foods

Rediscovering the Beauty of Shanghainese Comfort Foods

A Homecoming of Flavors

I remember quite vividly the last time I visited Chef Chen’s restaurant in Irvine, California. It was years ago, when I took my grandmother out for lunch – she was still mobile enough to get around in her wheelchair back then. Sadly, she passed away shortly after, and I hadn’t been back to the restaurant since.

That is, until last month, when I found myself celebrating the Lunar New Year at Chef Chen’s with one of the most respected food writers in Orange County. As we rang in the Year of the Goat, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia wash over me. This place, with its familiar flavors and comforting ambiance, was like a warm hug from an old friend.

My son, who has become somewhat of a Chinese food snob after our trip to Hong Kong a few years ago, was surprisingly eager to join us. “We have to go back to Chef Chen’s!” he’d been insisting ever since that New Year’s Day meal. I couldn’t help but feel a hint of pride – these flavors, the ones I grew up with and the ones I’ve passed down to him, had clearly left a lasting impression.

One Dragon Restaurant, the Shanghai cuisine establishment I’m here to write about, conjures up that same feeling of comfort and familiarity. It’s the kind of food I remember my mother cooking, the kind that wraps you in a warm blanket on a chilly night. And as I delve into the beauty of Shanghainese comfort foods, I can’t wait to share this rediscovery with you.

Embracing the Familiar

One of the standout dishes from my recent visits to Chef Chen’s was the Rock Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce. Fried to perfection and coated in a sauce dotted with julienned bamboo shoots, wood ear fungus, scallions, onions, and carrots, this dish is a true labor of love. It’s not something you order unless you have a larger group, as the commitment to picking through the bones and devouring every morsel of flesh is quite substantial. But trust me, it’s absolutely worth it.

Another cherished favorite is the Dried Beancurd with Shredded Pork (香干炒肉丝). This is a dish I often make at home, but it never quite captures the same magic as the version served at Chef Chen’s. I suppose it’s the intense heat required to stir-fry it correctly, a level my home stove just can’t quite match. For my son, this ranks pretty high on his list of must-have dishes, right up there with the Shanghai-style Rice Cakes (上海炒年糕).

The Shanghai-style Rice Cakes, with their distinct flavor profile of dark soy sauce, bits of shredded pork, mushrooms, and Napa cabbage, have a special place in my heart. Growing up, I loved the white version with preserved mustard greens (雪菜), but there’s just something about the Shanghai-style that resonates with me on a deeper level. Here, the restaurant has added a touch of spinach and bamboo shoots for an extra burst of color and flavor.

As I recalled my last visit to Chef Chen’s, I was reminded of another dish that had once eluded my palate – the Loofah Tofu Sheet and Edamame (絲瓜百页毛豆). As a child, I absolutely hated eating loofah, but on that New Year’s Day, I found myself eagerly taking a bite. It’s remarkable how our taste buds can evolve over the years, and I couldn’t wait to share this revelation with my mother, who would undoubtedly scold me for my foolishness.

Embracing the New

While the familiar flavors of my childhood hold a special place in my heart, I’ve also come to appreciate the beauty of Shanghainese cuisine in a whole new light. Take the Eggplant and Tofu Pot (茄子 – 豆腐煲), for instance. This was one of my grandmother’s favorite dishes, and it’s easy to see why. The combination of tender eggplant and silky tofu, simmered in a rich, fragrant broth and finished with a handful of aromatic basil, is simply heavenly.

What makes this dish truly special is the way it’s served – in a traditional claypot that helps retain the heat, creating a cozy and inviting dining experience. Some restaurants may offer this dish with chunks of roast pork, but I much prefer the pure, vegetarian version, allowing the flavors of the vegetables to shine.

And of course, no visit to One Dragon Restaurant or Chef Chen’s would be complete without indulging in the Beef Roll (牛肉捲餅). This dish, a combination of a pancake similar to a Chinese scallion pancake, filled with five-spice beef, scallions, cucumbers, and hoisin sauce, is a true masterpiece. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t absolutely love it.

Beef Roll Ranking Restaurant
1 One Dragon Restaurant
2 Peking Restaurant (Westminster)
3 101 Noodle Express (next door to Chef Chen’s)

What sets One Dragon’s Beef Roll apart, in my son’s opinion, is its perfect balance – less greasy and not overly sauced, unlike some other renditions he’s tried. Peking Restaurant, for instance, tends to be a bit heavy-handed with the hoisin sauce, so he recommends asking them to serve it on the side.

The Joys of Rediscovery

As I’ve rediscovered the beauty of Shanghainese comfort foods, both at One Dragon Restaurant and Chef Chen’s, I can’t help but feel a sense of joy and nostalgia. These flavors, so deeply rooted in my own culinary heritage, have a way of transporting me back to simpler times, when the warmth of a home-cooked meal was all that mattered.

And the best part? Sharing these discoveries with my son, who has developed his own appreciation for these dishes, has been an incredibly fulfilling experience. Whenever I suggest visiting a Chinese restaurant, he used to make a face and argue against it. But after our recent meals at One Dragon and Chef Chen’s, he’s been the one eagerly asking to go back.

Joy Restaurant in San Jose, another Shanghainese establishment, has also been on our radar, and I can’t wait to explore their menu and uncover more hidden gems.

As I continue my culinary journey, rediscovering the beauty of Shanghainese comfort foods, I’m reminded of the wise words of Fraser Hospitality’s article on rediscovering Shanghai: “The best way to truly understand a city is to explore it like a local.” And that’s exactly what I intend to do, one delicious bite at a time.

So, if you’re ever in the mood for a comforting and nostalgic culinary experience, I invite you to join me in rediscovering the treasures of Shanghainese cuisine at One Dragon Restaurant. Let the familiar flavors wrap you in a warm blanket, and let the new discoveries ignite your senses. After all, the beauty of Shanghainese comfort foods lies not just in the dishes themselves, but in the stories and memories they hold.



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