The new Green Village is the fanciest Shanghainese restaurant in town, a gently lit warren of white tablecloths and private dining rooms in the old second-floor King’s Palace space in a sleek San Gabriel mall, all braised sea cucumber and old Scotch whisky, gentle music and big flat-screens tuned to the latest shows from China. Table after table in the main dining room groans with plates of eel with leeks, huge tureens of mild duck soup, butter-soft braised fishtails in brown sauce, and the sweet, crunchy house-special spareribs, which are as hard to stop eating as buttered popcorn. Hollow bamboo tubes, as burnished as shipboard teak, conceal payloads of long-steamed pork belly and thickets of preserved mustard greens; oven-patina’d pottery holds a glistening mosaic of Hangzhou pork cooked over a bed of sticky rice. Bean sheets, like the thinnest, most translucent noodles, are tossed with Shanghainese pickled vegetables, with pork, or with a bitter, fragrant green called gee-tsai, which is something I’ve been looking for my entire life. At Green Village, the cold roast duck, saturated with the essence of star anise and soy, tastes even better than the hot roast duck, which is saying a lot.
When Green Village first took up residence in San Gabriel several years ago, first in a basic storefront a mile north of the current restaurant and then in more elegant quarters a block east, its directness of flavor and use of vegetables set it apart from most of the Shanghai-style restaurants in town, which mostly concentrated on the heavier, sweeter end of the eastern Chinese spectrum. The steamed soup dumplings with crab and the fluffy Yangchow-style lion’s-head meatballs were as tasty as they were at the other Shanghainese and Jiang Nan–style places in the area, but the chicken with chestnuts, minced tofu with greens, and soft, sharply vinegared Wu Xi spareribs, among many other dishes, prompted the longest lines in San Gabriel, waits that stretched up to several hours on weekend nights. A couple of years ago, Green Village was no more, at least outside of Rowland Heights. But now, in this new location, the hairy crab with fried rice cake, the crunchy candied eel and the pork knuckle in soy sauce are back, along with a long list of other Shanghai and Jiang Nan specialties on the epic-length menu.
There may be a universe of difference between citified Shanghainese cooking and the more rustic Jiang Nan cooking, but at Green Village, the terms seem to be used more or less interchangeably, so that, for instance, the seaweed-flavored yellow fish on the Shanghai Specialty section of the menu is identical to the sautéed yellow croaker with liver moss in the Jiang Nan Reminiscent Dishes section, and both are terrific: fingers of fish wrapped in seaweed, dipped in thin batter, flash-fried crisp, and served with a little dish of mixed pepper and salt, like some extra-crunchy shotgun marriage between a sushi roll and fish ’n’ chips. The puffy, doughnutlike version of fried yellow fish was wonderful at the last incarnation of Green Village, but this more refined take on the dish is even better. The menu may have four or five different ways of describing the Yangzhou crabmeat spring-roll casserole, but by any name, it is a delicious ceramic crock of mildly seafood-flavored broth spiked with cabbage, glass noodles and delicate, lemon-size meatballs made with pork and crabmeat.
The pork pump, or rump, or shank, which the last incarnation of Green Village translated as “wrinkly skin pork knuckle” and the current menu lists as both “pork leg” and “braised pork knuckle in soy sauce,” is an exotic-looking beast, a jellied mass the size and shape of a glistening, halved volleyball in a sea of brown gravy, surrounded with braised greens and garnished with an impressive pig femur that resembles the bone that the ape hurled into the air at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you have been eating pork pump since its earliest Los Angeles incarnations, you pretty much know what to expect: a thick layer of soft, liquid hog lard surrounding a fist-shaped lump of tender meat, flavored and nourished by the fat and by the sticky-sweet braising liquid, like the single best bite in a pork shoulder multiplied by 20. Pork knuckle is one of those dishes that seem to grow like an iceberg the more you slash away at them — even if there are 10 of you around the table, you may not make much of a dent in the dish. Take the extra to go — there are few things better than a few shreds of pork pump stuffed into a grilled cheese sandwich the next day.
Green Village Shanghai Restaurant, 250 W. Valley Blvd., #M, San Gabriel, (626) 576-2228. Lunch daily 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner 3–10 p.m. Full bar. Underground lot parking. MC, V. Lunch for two, food only, $10–$22; dinner for two, food only, $18–$42. Recommended dishes: seaweed-flavored yellow fish, bean sheets with gee-tsai; Wu Xi crispy eel; crabmeat-pork steamed buns; Hangzhou steamed pork with sticky rice; braised pork knuckle in soy sauce.