Pressing Mini Shanghai's business card into my hand, my Shanghainese food maven friend urged me to give the San Gabriel place a try. He said the cooking made him think of his family's old cook, a fastidious perfectionist who could elevate the gutsy richness of Shanghainese food to something almost elegant.
On my first visit to Mini Shanghai's buzzing room, there were voluptuous-looking platters of food and meats glistening with sheer sauces on tables all around me, but none of the dishes seemed to match the menu. Of course: These were the dishes advertised in Chinese on the wall banners. So I resorted to pointing out tempting-looking plates and asking my waitress to describe them. In some restaurants, this gregarious approach might not work, but Mini Shanghai's waiters and customers offered friendly and sometimes even passionate advice, and I learned a lot about Shanghai-style cooking.
When I asked my waitress about the delicate, sweet minced greens in my wontons, she brought out a few leaves of the familiar weed shepherd's purse, which grows abundantly in Shanghai's provincial regions. Shepherd's purse goes into at least half a dozen dishes here. It gives an almost fluffy texture to mien jin tsai ro, minced meat dumplings in thin sheets of faintly chewy gluten slicked with a dark and diaphanous glaze. Flecks of shepherd's purse enliven the stir-fried rice cake, a succulent, chewy oval pasta.
On nights that blue crabs are available, every table in the house seems to order a plate, drenched in a concentrated, vaguely sweet brown sauce. Removing the meat from these small creatures takes the skill of a surgeon, but it's the roe everyone covets. The crabs are served on their backs, so you can easily fish out nuggets of the luscious roe with chopsticks, as though eating from a small bowl.
Shanghai-style braised eel is nothing like the grilled eel so familiar in sushi bars. Here, a mass of pencil-thin eel in a dark roasted garlic bean sauce makes a dish easily as rich as foie gras .
Shanghai's renowned vegetarian cuisine contributes tofu in the most imaginative (and not always vegetarian) guises. Tao fu pei bao yok is pork dumplings wrapped in paper-thin sheets of tofu, swimming in an irresistible soy and star anise sauce. Strands of tofu as thin as angel hair get stir-fried along with various mushrooms, perfectly cooked shrimp and meaty, smoky slivers of ham.
Actually, I have discovered many fine dishes on the printed English menu. But if you happen to be at Mini Shanghai when it's fairly empty and the other tables can't give you any clues, I still recommend asking the head waitress for suggestions. Who could imagine from the menu's cryptic prose that "salted meat with bamboo shoots soup" would be a buoyant broth, rich with chunks of cured and fresh pork, flecked with dainty circles of dried bamboo shoots?
Sadly, steamed dumplings aren't impressive; mine came with dried-out skins and a lackluster filling. But I saw others being served much juicer Shanghai-style bao , fat little topknot-crowned dumplings that come with the classic Shanghainese dip of deep red vinegar and shredded ginger. I recommend getting these instead.
Mini Shanghai's ambience, a step above the ever-familiar Formica and Linoleum Chinese cafe non-decor, has a quaint formality. On one wall, someone has painted a slightly out-of-scale mural of the Bund, Shanghai's famed waterfront lined with Western-style buildings from the '30s. A large round table in one corner, the only one covered with a starched white tablecloth and sporting a sweet fresh flower nosegay, is, in effect, Mini Shanghai's banquet room.
I could suggest bringing a copy of James D. McCawley's "The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters" to help you translate the menu and the wall banners. But I've found the point-and-ask method so rewarding in this charm-filled place that I always leave my copy home.
Mini Shanghai, 712 Las Tunas Drive (near Mission Drive), San Gabriel. (626) 289-6656. Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m., Sundays through Thursdays; 5 to 10 p.m., Fridays through Saturdays. Beer. Parking lot. Cash only. Appetizers, $1.50 to $6; entrees, $4.95 to $10; whole fish $12 to $15. What to Get: Shanghai wonton soup, salted meat with bamboo shoots soup, tofu "noodles" stir-fried with mushrooms, shrimp and ham, sauteed eel, bean curd skin stuffed with pork, gluten stuffed with pork and vegetable, blue crabs with roe.