Shanghai Bites for the Chinese-Challenged

At Shanghai Cafe, we have cracked the code. The Chinese-only menu, helpfully translated by scoopG, reveals discoveries like Hundred Leaves Knotted Barbecue Meat, or bai ye jie kao rou: plaits of bean curd skin with chunks of tender, slow-cooked pork belly in brown sauce scented with star anise. "I've never had a dish quite like it before," writes bworm42, "and the memories of it have haunted me ever since."

Crispy yellow croaker, another house specialty from the Chinese menu, is a whole fish, lightly battered and fried, in sweet-sour sauce—fresh, crispy, and delicious, reports Lau. Fragrant shredded peppers and beef (xiao jiao xiang gang niu rou si) is a simple dish, well executed. Lau has had mixed experiences here, and his latest visit was no exception. Crab roe soup dumplings were a disappointment, with bland filling in thickish skins. But on the strength of the Chinese menu, he ranks Shanghai Cafe at the top of Chinatown's Shanghai restaurants, well above tourist favorites like Joe's Shanghai and Nice Green Bo.

Among the neighborhood's Cantonese options, South China Garden has been a hound hangout for years, doing brisk business under a succession of names (until this year, Cantoon Garden). Whatever it calls itself, it's still on its game, buttertart reports. Recent winners include the double lobster special, salt-and-pepper soft-shell crabs, crispy fried chicken with garlic sauce, and mixed vegetables with lotus root. "Don't go at night if you want to be able to hear your guests," she warns. "'Hot and noisy' is a term of approbation with regard to restaurants in Chinese, but SCG takes the noisy part to heart in a big way."

Bo Ky is another Chinatown favorite, beloved for its Southeast Asian–style noodle soups. Lately it's expanded northward, opening a second shop on Grand Street. Its teo chew with rice noodle is delicious and satisfying, with beef, onion, and bean sprouts in a funky, fishy Asian "bolognese," bigjeff reports. Curry chicken over yellow egg noodles is a sturdy, tasty meal, he adds, and pho with flat rice noodles comes in a hearty, somewhat one-dimensional broth, "good in a brute force kind of way." For hangover sufferers, MVNYC prescribes the pig intestine soup with pickled vegetables. "Must work through the entire menu somehow," bigjeff resolves.

For less ambitious eaters, Lau suggests a bite at Sun Light Bakery on Chinatown's eastern fringe. Alongside a typical array of Cantonese-style sweets is a savory surprise: cheong fun (rice noodle rolls). But unlike the specimens you might see circling a dim sum hall in carts, these are steamed to order. Fillings include minced beef, roast pork, and fresh or dried shrimp. The finishing touch is a sprinkling of scallion, cilantro, and dark, sweet soy sauce. Eat yours right away, in nearby Seward Park if the weather's good.

Shanghai Cafe [Chinatown]
100 Mott Street (between Canal and Hester streets), Manhattan
212-966-3988

South China Garden [Chinatown]
22 Elizabeth Street (between Bayard and Canal streets), Manhattan
212-964-2229

Grand Bo Ky [Chinatown]
216 Grand Street (between Mott and Elizabeth streets), Manhattan
212-219-9228

Sun Light Bakery [Chinatown]
160 E. Broadway (near Rutgers Street), Manhattan
212-608-8899

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