To understand the vibrant metropolis that was Shanghai in the twenties, Hannah Beach’s 2004 summary of the era in Time Magazine is particularly enlightening: “A Western trading port built on an Eastern marsh, its fashions were French, many of its banks and trading houses were British, its security guards were turbaned Indians from the raj and its signature soup, borscht, was brought by Russians fleeing from the Bolsheviks. Chinese refugees flooded the city, too, more than a million of them, bringing acres of bamboo scaffolding and the secrets to making the finest silk. By the 1920s, Shanghai was an exotic stew…” And a tasty at one at that, with many dishes both rustic and refined that Chinese food lovers the world over continue to relish: soup dumplings, braised fish tails, red braised pork and fish, “drunken” (alcohol marinated) meats and seafood, cold delicacies (like succulent smoked fish, and vinegared jellyfish), and fluffy, hand-chopped lion’s head meatballs.
These outstanding contributions to the vast empire of Chinese cuisine can be found at one of the most decadent Shanghainese restaurants in the Los Angeles area, with a name as imperious as the over-the-top elegance of its décor: Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village. In this massive branching den of polished wood, expansive banquettes, lush fabrics and more chandeliers than Versailles, diners who skillfully navigate the encyclopedic, 130+ page lustrously illustrated menu will be rewarded with some of the best Chinese food in the Los Angeles area: meltingly rich Back Alley Pork served in a rustic clay pot, what many of the local Chinese food cognoscenti consider to be the best sheng jian bao (fried pork buns) in a city teeming with contenders, and if you’re lucky enough to be invited to a banquet (or if you ask nicely), red braised carp.
This gleaming, moist, flavorful preparation of the finest that the freshwaters of the Yangtze Delta region have to offer (with a satiny texture a result of a pass through hot oil), is also featured prominently in the climax of the wonderfully silly and strange Tai Chi Hero (the sequel to Tai-Chi Zero), that fancifully re-imagines the history of Tai Chi with as many byzantine digressions and far-flung influences as Shanghai itself. Put another way, Tai Chi Hero merges anime steam-punk aesthetics with the conventions of the popular Wuxia genre (martial arts based historical fiction), then mixes in a healthy dose of videogame flash and wire fu (choreographed by the inimitable Sammo Hung) and applies a gossamer coat of the latest digital technology. It’s weird. It’s often very funny. It features giant tanks and a clanky proto-fighter jet. And it’s vertiginous climax, set on thin partitions dividing the kitchen in a prince’s palace, features more delicious food than any martial arts film probably ever.
Even more to the movie’s credit, the food plays a role in the suspense, because not only does it seem that the hero and his opponent might tumble into the gorgeous dishes being prepared below, but also, the hungry protagonist must concentrate on the battle of his life while being tempted by the finest food he’s ever seen. The fight, like the film, is an endearingly goofy pop art panoply, and an apt metaphor for Shanghai in the twenties, but perhaps even more so today, as the staggering economic growth spurts have lead to even more wide-ranging influences powered by an infectious youthful energy that creates its own kind of magnetism. The city sprawls every which way, as riotous and layered as the luscious fermented flavors in another dish for which its rightly famous: drunken crabs, in which a local delicacy, hairy crab, is marinated raw in yellow rice wine. No less estimable a culinarian than Ruth Reichl describes its taste thusly: “a musty, fruity flavor that is powerful and unforgettable.” Just like Shanghai and Tai Chi Hero. But then again, sometimes you have to get funky to get fresh.
SHANGHAI NO.1 SEAFOOD VILLAGE
Decadent and ambitious menu served up in spacious Shanghai roaring 20s digs. Some of the best Chinese food in SoCal.
Braised Red Carp, Pan-fried Pork Buns, Smoked Fish, Old Alley Pork.
Gleaming wood, lush booths, gaudy chandeliers and sprawling rooms are the ideal backdrop for haute Shanghai classics.
Occasionally brusque, but mostly efficient and good-natured.
Clamorous at peak lunch/dinner hours.
250 W Valley Blvd San Gabriel, CA 91776 (626) 282-1777.
Mon-Sun 10am-11pm. Credit Cards and Reservations accepted. Garage parking.
TAI CHI HERO (2012). Directed by Stephen Fung. Screenplay by Chia-lu Chang and Hsiao-tse Cheng. Story by Kuo-fu Chen. Starring Yuan Xiaochao, Angela Yeung Wing, Tony Leung Ka Fai.