In the middle of our afternoon's Taco Truck Trek, Melanie turns to me and says that she and some people she knows are having dinner at Shang Hai Taste Delight in Mountainview tonight and do I want to join them.
I think about the quantity of Mexican food I'm in the process of consuming; I think about driving from Alameda to Mountainview and back on a rainy work night. I hesitate. Then I realized I'm being offered the chance to eat Shanghainese food with people who actually know something about it and can read the Chinese menu and that there's going to be wine from Melanie's cellar to boot and said "I'm in."
The restaurant is tiny (I counted 9 tables) and unassuming in a small strip mall on El Camino in Mountainview. No decor to speak of, unless you count the long stips of paper listing the specials in Chinese. Over the time we were there (since some of the dishes were cold, food arrived almost immediately on ordering and kept coming) only a couple of other tables were occupied.
Melanie, Limster and I joined six other people (and one pre-schooler), and after Limster's lengthy consultation with the proprietress (among other issues one of the diners didn't eat pork or shellfish), we shared 13 dishes.
I have no idea what they were called in Chinese -- my notes are just descriptions of what appeared:
--Tofu skins with vegetables (Chinese name was something about yellow sparrows -- this was my favorite dish of the night)
--Steamed soy beans
--noodles with soy beans and some sort of finely diced green vegetable(s)
--a gluten dish with chunks of marinated gluten that looked like cubes of dark Russian rye and whose slightly sour note reinforced that impression -- this was my second favorite dish, I think
--smoked whole small fish
--gluten puffs and mushrooms claypot
--spare ribs in wuxi sauce
--some kind of fillet fish in a yummy (if oily) brown sauce
--eel in a brown sauce with minced garlic
--baby bok choi with mushrooms
--a noodle dish with chicken that resembled chow mein with a smoky quality
With this we had an assortment of wines -- mostly whites and mostly Reislings (Melanie pulled the Reidels out of the trunk for our delectation).
Of these dishes, the duck was a favorite, drawing raves about the way the fat had been perfectly rendered from the skin. I recall Limster liked the spareribs (although he complained that what he really wanted was the eel in the wuxi sauce -- personally I liked the sauce on the eel better).
The only two dishes I wouldn't happily order again were the baby bok choi (which wasn't bad, just ordinary) and the gluten claypot dish (the texture of the stewed gluten was not my cup of tea). The fact that I'm not fond of mushrooms didn't improve my assessment of either of these dishes.
Basically, everything was delicious and much of it completely new to me. I looked at the English menu and saw the same old "standard" American Chinese restaurant offerings. Again, to get the "good stuff" you have to either go with someone who speaks Mandarin or be willing to pester the staff into translating the Chinese menu for you. Although the older woman who waited on us appeared to speak little English, a young man in the kitchen I spoke to on the way back from the restroom was fluent and willing to answer questions (I was staring in fascination at what turned out to be gluten balls that they were stuffing with pork sausage which he told me were then to be braised in brown sauce -- I want to try those!). So just don't give up!
The bill for this feast (including the duck, which was $18) came to an astonishing $120 (including tax -- they didn't charge us corkage). With tip it came to $16 per person for the nine adults.
Shang Hai Taste Delight
855 W. El Camino (just north of Castro)
Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.