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XLB and Other Revelations at Su Hong, Palo Alto

Melanie Wong | Dec 22, 2002 03:29 AM

Last weekend after enjoying the vintage Champagne tasting at VVW in Palo Alto, Rochelle McCune and I were game for a recon lunch at Su Hong. We’d had a superlative experience at China First Gourmet in Milpitas the previous Saturday, and the staff had told us that Su Hong had the same owners and “secret” Eastern Chinese menu.

We slogged our way through driving rain up to the Menlo Park location, skidded into our seats at 1:55pm (barely beating the end of lunch service), and then learned that this location does NOT have the “Shanghai” menu! Our waiter, Andy, said that the Palo Alto location makes those specialties. He said his kitchen could try to accommodate our request or we could go to Palo Alto where lunch service ends at 2:30pm. He thought we could make it…so we decided to push ahead.

Despite downed trees in our path and white-out conditions, we managed to get there in time and found a more upscale and white table-clothed décor at the Palo Alto site. We also noticed a refrigerator case full of typical cold appetizers. Again, the extensive Eastern Chinese specialties on the menu were not translated into English. Since “tanspace” had coached me in the Mandarin names for the dishes we had the weekend before, we made it easy on our server and ordered the same things here (see Derek’s report linked below). However, instead of the rice cakes with the snow cabbage and white sauce, we went for the brown-sauced shang hai chao nian gou (Shanghai-style sauteed rice cakes) so that Rochelle could see the difference.

The regular xiao long bao and the crab version of the little steamed dumplings came out together. The waiter left the baskets stacked one atop the other, which kept the crab dumplings on the bottom tier warm until we were ready for them. When Rochelle’s husband, Michael Alderete, tasted his first of the xlb, he exclaimed, “Are these supposed to be the same thing as the soup dumplings we’ve been eating at all those dim sum houses? There’s no comparison. Not at all.” Rochelle thought the skins were a little thinner here than in Milpitas, and I found the filling a bit firmer and less delicate, but the taste, intense broth, and overall quality were equivalent. The ones filled with delicately sweet crab meat and ground pork were even better. Very thin-skinned, two of them leaked, unfortunately, and we lost the soup. These share honors with China First Gourmet for the best I’ve found locally.

The sticky ovals of rice cake were sauteed with thin strips of pork (rou si), fresh spinach leaves (bo cai) and a brown sauce. My brother was impressed with the texture, “chewy and firm, not too soft”, better than any he’d had before. Rochelle found she preferred the refinement and complexity of the white-sauced version better, this one was saltier and not as interesting.

The rendition of house-style cai fan (veggie rice pot with salted pork) was even better here. The rice grains were a touch firmer and more individual lending an almost crumbly mouthfeel. The browned crust on the bottom was thicker, the flavors and smoky component were more intense, and there was a higher proportion of the fatty salted pork. We noticed that the clay pot cooking/serving vessel was relatively new, whereas we had been surprised at the well-seasoned, darkly stained pots at Milpitas. The seasoning of the pot adds to the flavor of the food, and we figured that Palo Alto had sent their mature and well-used pots to Milpitas to help the new kitchen get started. (g)

The ti pang (red cooked pork shoulder) was smaller than the one in Milpitas. Our waiter was almost apologetic that they only serve one size here versus the two sizes at the other restaurant. However, this was still a big hunk of meat, more than enough for four of us and we still had leftovers to take home. Michael theorized that we might finish one some day if we have eight or more people at the table. It was presented without the bone. Our server cut it apart and then removed the knife from the table. The texture of the meat was not quite as pull-apart tender and the rind wasn’t as meltingly soft as Milpitas. But this was still mighty fine. Rochelle thought the brown sauce was a touch sweeter too, and we enjoyed it drizzled on the cai fan.

All in all, the quality was very high. I never imagined that Su Hong could turn out authentic regional food like this. Rochelle and I felt the style and recipes were quite consistent between the two kitchens, showing the same hand. Prices were about 10% higher here and not out of line with the more upscale setting. We’re already plotting a return visit to sample more of the menu.

Su Hong Restaurant
4101 El Camino Way
(behind Pizza Chicago)
Palo Alto
Reservation: 650-493-3836
Take out: 650-493-4664

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