By Bonnie Chan
Shanghai Café, located on Mott Street in Chinatown, has fondly watched many of its patrons within the neighborhood grow up over the period of several years. In 2003, Diane Ku and Grace Lau, best friends united by a fervent love and passion for food, decided to open a restaurant featuring Shanghai cuisine, a daring move at a time when Cantonese cuisine was still largely predominant. Over the years, this bold action has paid off in flocks of customers who are attracted to this delicious, flavorful type of cooking.
Upon entering Shanghai Café, one immediately notices the striking décor. Designed by Raymond Chen, the interior is a mixture of playful elements, as demonstrated by soft, colorful lights, and more traditional features, such as in the wooden booths lining the walls. Round tables in the middle of the restaurant welcome big parties, while personal tables and cozy booths are available for smaller, more intimate groups.
The most popular dish is Shanghai Café’s Steamed Tiny Buns with Crab Meat and Pork, or as known by its Chinese name, Xiao Long Bao. These steamed buns sport delicate, thin skins, packing within intensely flavorful meat and simmering, tasty soup. As Ku explains, their restaurant utilizes only the finest, highest-quality ingredients — the pork contains little to no fat, which minimizes grease; and the crabmeat used is fresh, rather than canned, a choice that results in a clean aftertaste, rather than the typical oily, heavy residue in the mouth. Sticky Rice in Bamboo Leaf, is also another incredibly popular delicacy, and the most traditional version of the dish, loved for its salty, strong, and meaty flavor particularly in Jiangnan, the region south of Shanghai. Both of these aforementioned dishes are so high in demand that previous customers have even requested that they be shipped, frozen, to places such as Buffalo, NY, and California. Another creation, braised pork belly, is named Dongpo Rou, after the famous Song Dynasty poet and artist that inspired its first inception, Su Dong Po. This silky, high-protein dish is a classic in Shanghai and a favorite amongst celebrities, who prize it for allegedly having complexion-benefiting qualities.
Shanghai Café has been honored to be patronized by such famous persons as Ang Lee and YoYo Ma. However, the restaurant’s charm lies in its down-to-earth, casual atmosphere, epitomized by the friendliness and warmth of its owners, as well as its generous portions of delectable food at more-than-reasonable prices — the majority of the dishes hover at the $6 price point, and no item on the menu surpasses $20, a relief for anyone’s wallet. Ku and Lau pride themselves on setting high standards for their food’s quality and freshness, and enjoy making every customer feel welcome during their stay, be they young or old. Shanghai Café continues to be a popular, long-standing staple of Chinatown, drawing regular crowds daily, including students trekking in from nearby schools, families and friends, all looking for a comfortable place to unwind, laugh, and indulge in delicious Shanghai-style food.