Braised meats are doing better box office than even Russell Crowe at the moment, from the tripe at Osteria Angelini to the veal cheeks at Spago, the carnitas at Border Grill to the pork-belly appetizer at Jar. Braising is a gentle way to cook the most ungentle cuts, breaking down tough skeins of connective tissue into pillows of mellow softness, coaxing flavor out of all sort of things that you never would have thought had much flavor in them to begin with — beef tendons, for example, or the Nike-sole creatures known as sea cucumbers.
In all the world, nobody braises with quite the intensity of the Shanghainese, who slow-cook meat in a rich master sauce of soy and stock and rock sugar and rice wine until it becomes the vaporous essence of animal, sweet and trembling and barely solid enough to hold its shape in a spoon before it collapses into a fragrant, slightly viscous puddle.
For a long time, the local standard bearer in Shanghainese braised meats was probably the pork ”pump“ at Lake Spring Cuisine in Monterey Park, a huge, blobby swine part sheathed in several inches of fat, stained a deep mahogany brown and soft as a sigh. The braised wu xi–style pork ribs at San Gabriel‘s Mei Long Village and the braised small eels at San Gabriel’s Mini Shanghai were pretty great too — the San Gabriel Valley is blessed in its Shanghainese restaurants.
Now comes Green Village, the newest and probably the best of the several Shanghai-style restaurants in the sprawling San Gabriel Square, a modestly sleek place as cozy as your grandmother‘s living room, with a big photomural on one wall depicting Shanghai’s new, Jetsonian skyline. Of the dozen-odd restaurants on the second level of the big mall, Green Village is the one with a half-hour wait for tables on weekends, the one where elderly Chinese couples dress up a bit for weekend lunch, the one whose phenomenal crab soup dumplings you may hear people talking about excitedly in the 99 Ranch Market downstairs.
As in the San Gabriel restaurants that are all but impossible for the non-Chinese speaker to figure out, the waitresses at Green Village are fairly monolingual, and the written menu has a tendency to lapse into Chinese just when things are starting to get interesting; for somebody illiterate in Chinese, composing a meal from the menu alone can seem a little like trying to put together a narrative from one of those Freedom of Information Act documents that the FBI has systematically gone through with Sharpies. If you try to go it alone, even if you choose from the long lists of dumplings, cold dishes and Shanghainese specialties, it is easy enough to end up with a meal of mediocre stir-fries and noodles instead of the mind-bendingly good lima beans with preserved vegetables, the extremely tasty eel paste sauteed with yellow leeks, or the braised sea cucumber with spring onions.
But helpfulness seems to be a house policy at Green Village, and the staff seems genuinely to want you to eat well, even when you aren‘t quite sure what it is that you have in mind.
Most of the cold dishes are good, and some are better than that: chicken marinated in rice wine, bits of fried bean curd marinated in a sort of wine sauce, bright-pink cured pork served with black vinegar, and the nicely sweet, if bony, house-smoked fish. The dish of minced wild greens with bean curd is fairly extraordinary, although untranslated: You should try and talk your waiter into some.
There may be no food on Earth with a name less appealing than sauteed yellow croaker with liver moss, but the croaker itself is sensational, a preparation of battered fillets that resembles nothing so much as freshly fried fish doughnuts, a seafood dish so tender it makes Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks seem as challenging as live octopus sashimi. Green Village has a small sideline in hot-pot specialties, not many of which are translated, and of them the chicken with chestnuts, sizzling in a shiny, sweet brown sauce, is especially fine. (Hair crabs, although they transfer flavor to all manner of dishes here, are stringy and scant of meat; generally not worth the trouble.)
You perhaps have come for the braised things: dense, Yangchow-style meatballs resonant with star anise; spare ribs that are all garlic-scented sinew; or half-charred fish tails that define a new standard of fishy lusciousness. Half a braised duck reduces down to almost nothing, all bones, skin and a few tablespoonfuls of incredibly delicious goo with the density of a dwarf star and the taste of purest poultry. But the monster dish here is something called wrinkled skin pork knuckle, what seems like an entire braised hog shank collapsed onto itself like a science experiment gone terribly, terribly wrong. You may be eating wrinkled skin pork knuckle as leftovers for a very long time, but rest assured — a little tastes great in a grilled cheese sandwich.
140 W. Valley Blvd., Nos. 206-207, San Gabriel; (626) 288-5918. Lunch and dinner daily. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $14–$24. Recommended dishes: cold minced wild greens with bean curd; steamed soup dumplings with crab; Yangchow braised meatball; chicken-chestnut clay pot; braised half-duck; leeks with eel paste; braised fish tail with brown sauce; wrinkled skin pork knuckle. MC, V.