As requested, here is a report on our first-time visit to the Vancouver region, jones-ing for Shanghainese food and xiaolong bao. (Yes, we neglected the excellent Cantonese fare, but the SF Bay area can probably hold a candle to Van in that department, and we did have an agenda.)
In general, we were surprised at the number of Shanghainese Restaurants, Shanghainese people and Mandarin-speaking people we encountered. Two of our three dinners were at purportedly Shanghainese Restaurants, Shanghai Shin Ya in one of the Asia West malls (I still haven't got the geography straight) and Chen's Shanghai Restaurtant on Leslie Rd.
Shanghai Shin Ya won our affections. The food, while not stellar, was as authentic as you can get for family-style Shanghainese food, and all of the staff and probably all of the customers except me were speaking Shanghainese (though I'll modestly allow that I can curse and order food in the dialect). They had a great version of yan du xian, the national soup of Shanghai, as it were, a dish so home-y that it's seldom even found in restauarants. We also had an even harder to find hashed doufu gan and garlic chive dish, a passable kaofu dish, a red-cooked fish dish and a falling-off-the-bone pork hock (tipang) which was blessedly not overly sweetened with rock sugar.
Chen's Shanghai Restaurant, on the other hand, was one of those places that tries to be all things to all people, despite its name. Some dishes had characteristic Shanghainese ingredients, like the stuffed youmian jing, but were delivered in unfamiliar preparations without the stark flavor profiles of Shanghainese cuisine. The spicy fish slices, a familiar Sichuanese-with-Shanghainese-characteristics item on menus in Shanghai, was also delivered in a stock that was a muddle of flavors. Although a popular venue (there was a big line waiting when we left), the clientele seemed mostly Cantonese; Our inititial server, who spoke serviceable Mandarin, eventually swapped us off to a Shanghainese waitress when my SIL asked questions about ingredients and preparations in terms that were untranslatable to Mandarin (the answers were all "no").
I also got to sample three different xiaolong bao offerings, and was pleased to find that the xialong bao served at the Bejing-Shanghai Delicacies stall in the Richmond Public Market food court ranked with the best I have found in North America in the 12 years that I have been in the hunt. By unanimous decision of the three contentious Shanghainese in my party and myself, we returned for more a second day.
The next stall over from the BJ-SH stall, "Tian Jing Food" also offered xiaolong bao and had an elegant picture of same on their sign, so my journalistic curiosity made me purchase a small order for side-by-side comparison, contrary to the advice of my fellow travelers (the goubuli from there had already bombed in our trials). TJ food's xiaolong bao were a disaster, with thick, brittle wrappers, a chewy, tasteless filling and no "soup".
Chen's Shanghai Restaurant also offered xiaolong bao with dinner (Shanghai Shin Ya, like most restaurants in Shanghai, didn't have it on the dinner menu). The XLB at Chen's were something that a New York soup dumpling maven would love, being overly large, flabby, and souped up like the ones at Joe's Shanghai. They were flavorful enough, but far from the smaller, tightly constructed and delicately skinned model for xlb.
Overall, I'd probably have to say that the Richmond Public Market was probably the highlight of the three days for our frugal bunch. The food court was simply amazing, with vendors of specialties from at least Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Xi'an, Xinjiang (2, including one halal), Taiwan, Chongqing, Guangdong, Singapore, and Hong Kong, that I can recall. Although the quality varied, I found myself wishing we had the time to sample all the offerings. At the produce stalls on the main floor, my wife and her sister were both ecstatic at finding White Bamboo, something they have never found locally. I'm not sure if it's a proscribed foodstuff, but I can now safely report that they both were succesful at "smuggling" a small supply into the US.
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