Shanghai Surprise

Here we are again in the giant San Gabriel mall, the one-stop, two-story Chinatown that may be the best-smelling mall in America. San Gabriel Square might be as important a destination for food-minded folks in Southern California as Disneyland is for tourists with kids.

Amid the Chinese Muslim food, the Taiwanese seafood, the Chiu Chow noodles, the Cantonese roast ducks, there is Sunny Dragon, which occupies a high corner of the mall. It’s an elegant, high-style Shanghainese restaurant, a nice place, specializing in Shanghai’s typical sweet, rich, oily sauces; freshwater fish; pungencies of ginger and mellow roasted garlic; giant, fluffy ground-pork lion’s head meatballs.

Large parties of Chinese businessmen sit around the round tables here, feasting on stuffed duck and toasting each other with glasses of strong Taiwan beer; expensively dressed women tuck into bean-curd sheets fried with vegetables.

Sunny Dragon is kind of expensive, and looks it, a Chinese restaurant adequate to special occasions. It is also a restaurant difficult to get used to--it was not until my fourth or fifth visit that I learned about the existence of the house’s wonderful condiment of black beans and fresh, sliced chiles; the garlicky cold-seaweed salad sometimes served as an appetizer; the marvelous, flaky baked dumplings stuffed with scallions and smoky bacon.


Where Cantonese restaurants steam whole fish, here they’re typically braised in fragrant, brown gravy. Where Cantonese chefs typically serve fried fish fillets in garlic sauce, here they’re blanketed with a thick, subtly winy emulsion that seems as refined as any three-star French sauce. Where Taiwanese restaurants broil eels with a sticky soy marinade, here elvers are quickly fried with yellow chives, served crackling with hot oil, laced with shreds of fresh ginger, perfumed with star anise. (There is also a delicious “Shanghai fried eel,” deep-fried into a crisp tangle, drizzled with syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds, which demonstrates the famous Shanghai sweet-tooth as well as anything.)

Whole yellowfish are filleted, wrapped with herbs into sheets of bean curd and fried into crunchy, gossamer-light cigars that you dip into little dishes of pepper-salt: spectacular food. Among the cold dishes, there are candied roasted pine nuts that you wish every movie theater in the world sold instead of P-Nuttles. There are perfect fried sardines. There is a sliced “pork jelly” terrine that looks and tastes a little like the kind of ham aspic an exemplary Midwestern cook might have made for a party in 1956.

Pork ribs come half a dozen ways, steamed, fried, cooked in fragrant wrappings of lotus leaf, including “Shanghai-style”: gingery, gravied, succulent and glazed with garlic and sweet soy, falling off the bone. Country-style tofu is sliced into slabs, sizzled crisp, served in brown sauce. Steamed fish tails, soft and melting, are served in a sauce based on chile oil. The only bummer: A dish of chicken with taro was a gray, bland mess that resembled what I imagine dorm food might be like in Nanking.

But bean leaves, sauteed with nothing but a hint of oil, taste of nothing but themselves, a concentrated leafy thing with a hint of the nuttiness you might associate with fresh soy beans. Hearts of Chinese cabbage are fried with a sprinkling of tiny fried shrimp, whose strong, briny flavor sets off perfectly the musky sweetness of the vegetable. At Sunny Dragon, even vegetables taste good.


* Sunny Dragon

140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 210, San Gabriel, (818) 307-9008. Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Carte Blanche, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$32.