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Restaurants & Bars 8

San Shing - Fuzhou - Closed

Rene G | Oct 17, 200203:13 PM

A few weeks ago I mentioned a fairly new Fuzhou restaurant in Chinatown. I was hoping to go back one more time before writing about it but it has suddenly closed after being in business less than half a year. Here are a few comments about San Shing and Fuzhou food for whatever they may be worth.

About four months ago San Shing opened in the old Jumbo Seafood space which before had been home to Cantonese Chef for many years. The several menus are a curious mix of the common and the more unusual. Besides things like mu shu pork, kung pao shrimp, and broccoli beef are stir fried pine nuts and corn, and a couple menu items that would seem of special interest to two readers of this board: Spam with cabbage (sound good, David?) and tofu with live fish (caught your attention, Zim?). Unfortunately I’m afraid both translations are inaccurate. The Spam dish directly translates as strange flavor cabbage (a brilliant error, I’d say) and the supposed live fish dish is simply a tofu casserole made with fresh fish (or so I think).

Definitely some intriguing items but what most caught my eye was the Fuzhou section.

Fuzhou, the capital of the coastal province of Fujian, is roughly midway between Guangzhou and Shanghai and has a distinctive cuisine not served elsewhere in Chicago as far as I know. One characteristic feature of the cuisine is the use of hongzao (a.k.a. wine lees or red sediment) made from fermented glutinous rice. It’s roughly equivalent to the Japanese kasu-zuke or sake lees but hongzao is bright red. Dishes made with hongzao have a distinctive pungent, alcoholic sweetness. Several dishes feature these sauces: dry bamboo shoot, rabbit, jellyfish, and a pork and bamboo shoot dish. Soups figure very prominently in Fuzhou cuisine and most of that section of the menu is devoted to various soups and noodles. There are 23 offerings falling into 8 classes.

They have a variety of menus. Of the two paper take out menus, the one in color is fairly generic, the other in red ink more interesting. On my first visit I was steered toward the boring generic menu. Luckily I had already seen the Fuzhou menu and was able to resist. There is also a special late night menu (10pm-2am) at the end of one of the bound menus. I haven’t had a chance to order from this yet.

I tried the pork and bamboo shoot stir fried with hongzao (#515, misleadingly translated on the menu) and was presented with a huge bright red pile of sliced fatty pork belly and a few slices of bamboo shoot. Interesting flavors but you’d better be a big fan of fatty pork to order this one.

Fish balls (#506) are small springy spheres of starchy fish paste encasing a small nugget of pork. It’s not mentioned on the menu but they are available either boiled or fried. Our waiter recommended the fried, a good choice.

Ox tail stew (#524) was actually a soup with a pile of small bits of bone and meat in a fairly bland brownish gray broth. Not bad but pretty unexciting I thought.

I don’t think San Shing is a great restaurant but I can say with some confidence it’s the best Fuzhou restaurant in Chicago. I’d say it’s worth a try to sample some dishes unavailable elsewhere if for no other reason than to put a new notch on your chopsticks.

It is possible to buy tubs of hongzao from the restaurant. I was unable to determine if they make it there or get it elsewhere. Very interesting stuff and I’m looking forward to playing around cooking with it. It’s a soft coarse mash, bright red, and yeasty-alcoholic smelling. The real hongzao is red because of the action of the fungus Rhodotorula but I’d be surprised if this stuff didn’t have some artificial coloring. It may be worth getting a tub ($2 for about a pound) if only because that way they’ll believe you’re serious about the Fuzhou food.

This has been discussed here before, but I’d like to put in a plug for James McCawley’s Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters, long out of print. I never made much headway with the book before but found it extremely useful for reading San Shing’s menu, whose English translations often left a lot to be desired. A Chinese coworker confirmed my translations and was surprised that I was able correctly decipher the menu. The trick for me was not to bother reading straight through the book, just enough to barely figure out the character classification scheme, then to bumble around trying some real translations (and it sure helps to have even an inaccurate translation to start from). Then going back to read the text was a lot more productive. Unfortunately it’s tough to find a copy of the book at a reasonable price.

San Shing (closed)
2342 S Wentworth Av
7 days, 11am-2am

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