Whenever my family goes out to dinner at Little Shanghai, my grandma always orders. Sometimes, she’s already handled everything before we even sit down. As my cousins, brother, and I settle into our seats, salted peanuts with seaweed and bowls of hot and sour soup start to hit the table, appearing in front of us, seemingly out of thin air.
This scene is one I know well. Since I was 10, my immediate and extended family have been coming to this San Mateo spot - one of the few Shanghainese restaurants in the Bay Area - to celebrate birthdays and Lunar New Year, or to get together, just because. Despite the restaurant being about an hour away from Oakland, where the majority of my family lives, we still make the drive across the San Mateo Bridge, fueled by the promise of rice cakes and traditional Shanghainese appetizers like salted duck (my grandma’s favorite) and smoked fish.
About a decade after Vera Wan and Cheng-Lin Liu moved to the Bay Area, they opened Little Shanghai in 2007. “When we came to California, there weren’t many Chinese restaurants specializing in specifically Shanghainese cuisine,” Wan said. “So we decided to open our own.” The two relied on their experience working in restaurants back home to get Little Shanghai off the ground - Liu also went to culinary school in Shanghai.
Little Shanghai has been a consistent gathering spot for my family ever since, but the importance of this restaurant extends beyond that. Both sides of my family are Shanghainese, yet many of us don’t cook a lot of traditional Chinese food. Our trips to Little Shanghai over the years have helped me become familiar with the foods they grew up eating.
Shanghainese food is typically characterized by flavors that are on the sweeter and lighter side. Many dishes also incorporate soy sauce and vinegar, which adds a sour element to a lot of recipes, too. You’ll see plenty of braised dishes, like eggplant or bean curd, a whole fishtail in a dark soy sauce, or massive pork meatballs that are slow-cooked and served with vegetables.
At Little Shanghai, the thought and care that Wan and Liu put into the whopping 200+ dishes on the menu are evident. You can especially see the detail in the cold appetizers, which are unique to Shanghainese cuisine. The drunken chicken - which is soaked in a light wine sauce and comes served in a little pumpkin-shaped bowl - is made with five-year aged wine that’s imported directly from Shanghai. The finely-chopped ma lan tou, the vegetable used in the bean curd cold appetizer, is also imported from there. And according to Wan, preparing the salted duck is a two-day process.
Despite the devastating effects of the pandemic on restaurants, Little Shanghai is still going strong, thanks to lots of local support. During my interview with Wan in early May, I watched as customer after customer approached the makeshift takeout window at the back of the restaurant, leaving with to-go bags full of lunch. “We don’t do very much advertising,” Wan said. “Word of mouth and loyal repeat customers have been good for us.”
I can’t wait to celebrate here with my family after going a year without the big dinners I’m used to. I’m also excited to see the dining room full again, and to feel the collective joy and sense of community that comes with sitting around a table and sharing spareribs and those steamy plates of rice cakes. Until then, I’ll tell you what to get on your next visit - especially since you won’t have my grandma there to order for you.
MY FAMILY’S FAVORITE DISHES AT LITTLE SHANGHAI
We always start our meal off with a few of these, like the smoked fish, drunken chicken, bean curd with ma lan tou, salted duck, and fried puff bean curd with black mushroom (all pictured below). They’re light and refreshing, and the perfect balance of salty and sweet.
Pork & Preserved Vegetables with Rice Cakes
When I’m not sitting in front of a plate of them at the restaurant (and fighting with my brother for the last bite), I daydream at least twice daily about the chewy rice cakes, stir-fried with strips of pork and tender, salted and preserved mustard greens that soak up the sauce really nicely. This dish would probably be my last meal on earth.
Baked Steamed Rice with Salted Pork & Vegetables
This super comforting, well-balanced rice dish is made in a clay pot, with the rice absorbing all the flavors from the vegetables and salted pork.
Broad Beans with Bamboo & Ham
These beans have it all: they’re slightly nutty, salty from the chunks of ham, and a little sweet from the tender slices of bamboo shoots. My mom loves these.
Sweet & Sour Spareribs
Probably the richest dish on the table, but one you won’t want to miss. The soft, bite-sized spare ribs are coated in a thick, dark sauce that I would eat by the spoonful.
Sauteed Prawns Shanghai Style
Simplicity at its finest. The mini shrimp are cooked perfectly, and are meant to be dipped in a vinegar sauce that adds a bit of tangy flavor to each bite.
Xiao Long Bao
The xiao long bao here are each about the size of a golf ball, made with a thick dumpling wrapper and a juicy pork filling. Together, my brother, cousins and I usually make quick work of at least two or three orders, stacking the empty steamers up in record time.