I finally hightailed it down to Sunny Shanghai to check out some traditional Shanghainese "small eats" for lunch today. It's easily accessible from CalTrain (10-minute walk) and the geezer fare is only a buck each way, so I'm asking myself what took me so long.
It's a homey place in a jerrybuilt-looking building, and except for the two-top I managed to snag, was full at 12:30 PM, with me the only non-Asian present. The waitress (owner/partner?) was Shanghainese which eased communication, because Shanghainese is the only Chinese dialect I can articulate competently, even though my vocabulary is limited mostly to cursing and ordering good things to eat.
Since I was flying solo, I limited myself to my three core benchmarks for Shanghainese "xiao chi", namely xiaolong bao, shengjian bao (pan-fried dumplings) and xian doujiang (savory soymilk soup). The xiaolong bao were very good, I'd definitely put them in the top tier of my favorites, behind Shanghai House's and Shanghai Dumpling King's (pending a revisit, since I haven't been to SDK in quite some time) but ahead of Shanghai Restuarant's (Oakland). They were a tiny bit larger than standard (a minor quibble, I know, but I'm finicky about XLB orhodoxy) with a somewhat thick skin and a soup slightly lacking in flavor sharpness. The taste and texture of the both the wrapper and its contents were, however, otherwise very good.
The shengjian bao were also good, as good as I've found in the US (though I haven't pursued SJB as assiduously as I have XLB) but more genteel than the oh-so-satisfying grease bombs from the streets of Shanghai. They, too, were on the large side, but nicely browned on the bottoms and artfully studded with sesame seeds and spring onion tops. The mince pork filling was savory, and they were juicy BUT NOT JUICY ENOUGH, DAMMIT!
The xian doujiang was about par with what I've been able to find in the US, excepting the paramount version served at Shanghai House in San Francisco. XDJ is a witches brew of soy milk, and some or all of vinegar, dried brine shrimp, pickled mustard greens, pork sung, chili oil, soy sauce, sesame oil and salt, that I can think of, and there are always islands of yuotiao (cruller) pieces. The soy milk curdles just like cow's milk from the vinegar, and all kinds of dynamics are set up, flavorwise, which are impossible to deconstruct, IMHO, to lay bare what's right or wrong with the brew. It's either the poportions of the ingredients or the mystical incantation uttered over a bowl of xian doujiang while it's being assembled which determine whether it has magic in it or not. The XDJ at Shanghai House does, but that at Sunny Shanghai doesn't.
Sunny Shanghai has a host of other breakfast time comfort foods I've been missing, like scallion pancakes, "xiao" wonton soup, curry beef soup, and did someone say stinky tofu? I'll be back!
189 El Camino Real, San Bruno, CA 94066