Of all the dishes I loved at Green Village, a restaurant that seemed to move locations more often than a Kogi truck, the one I always tried to order was called something like Doufu w/ Wild Greens, a cold appetizer of minutely diced dried bean curd tossed with a minced vegetable I had never encountered anywhere else, a pungent, slightly crunchy green with a forward bittersweet taste and a slight back-taste of menthol. It would be hard to imagine a more refreshing start to a meal of the restaurant's rich, Shanghainese cuisine.
Even at the various Green Villages, I often lost track of the dish, which tended to be either untranslated or translated differently at each incarnation of the place; at Shanghai-style restaurants that didn't happen to be Green Village, I was never able to order the vegetable at all. When the last of the Green Villages closed at the end of last year, I figured I'd never see it again.
So you can imagine how happy I was to stumble into Shanghai Bamboo House, a Temple City restaurant transplanted to Monrovia, and find the vegetable right at the beginning of the menu, translated as boltonia, which in the United States are wildflowers that look like tiny daisies. In Shanghai, apparently, the stems and leaves are steamed, chopped and eaten. And the version of the dish at Shanghai Bamboo House was the best thing in the world to eat on a hot summer day, heaven itself with a plate of dumplings and cold chunks of sweet smoked fish. Were the pan-fried dumplings a little clumpy? It didn't matter.
The restaurant is oddly located even by mini-mall standards, sitting on what seems to be a residential stretch of road, hidden at the back of a parking lot. I knew more or less where the place was, but I think I sailed past it four or five times the first time I tried to find it, and when I meet friends there, I can count on them to become hopelessly lost.
Some of the Shanghainese dining rooms in the San Gabriel Valley may be more ambitious than Shanghai Bamboo House, some of them less so, and the restaurant seems to have found its niche right in the middle: It's not luxurious, but your elbows don't stick to the tables; it's not unfriendly to outsiders, but you get the feeling that the customers mostly know one another; and you will often see people bringing in extremely expensive bottles of wine.
More to the point, although the restaurant specializes in a branch of cuisine known for sweetness, heaviness and generosity with oil, the Shanghai Bamboo House is light and graceful, balanced texturally, and fresh. You can get your enormous braised pig's knuckle, and sandy pot with chicken and chestnuts, and Jell-O-like braised sea slugs with shrimp roe, but the soul of the restaurant lies elsewhere — cold, boiled chicken that sings with salt and the gamy essence of the bird; ultralight braised tofu rolls stuffed with pork or shrimp; coins of cool, stuffed lotus root slicked with a wine sauce and stuffed with sticky rice. The braised squash with tiny sun-dried shrimp is luscious and light; the tureenful of “house special rice soup” seems almost without weight.
A casserole called Ham w/ Yam — yes, I thought of Aubrey's menu in Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet — is almost the opposite of what you might think it would be, not a Thanksgiving-ish stodge but thin, almost raw slices of the mountain vegetable that the Japanese call yama-imo, in a slightly thickened rice-wine broth studded with salty bits of country ham: a beautiful dish.
Those pan-fried dumplings may have been dull, but the house's soup dumplings, the famous xiao long bao, are so good that I almost couldn't believe it the first time I had them — much thicker-skinned than their Din Tai Fung counterparts but also more flavorful, fat with hot juice, the minced pork inside fluffy and light where it is usually a meaty clump. I stopped on the way home for a reality check, and the xiao long bao at J&J, a San Gabriel café famous for the dish, seemed like wet lumps in comparison.
The staff at Shanghai Bamboo House is pretty monolingual, enough so that it is difficult to reserve a duck stuffed with sticky rice — a specialty that you have to order 24 hours in advance — unless you have a Chinese speaker around. If you have food allergies, you're probably not going to find out if the fish-head soup contains peanuts.
Yet the service tends to be deft and caring — for the first time ever, I felt as if I understood a waitress when she talked to me in Chinese. She clucked with disapproval whenever I tried to order a meal that included two pork dishes, for example, or too many casseroles, or crab out of season. The Shanghai egg rolls are the best I've ever had — golden, greaseless, stuffed with just a little cabbage and somehow gooey under the shatteringly crisp skin — but she kept nudging me toward the xiao long bao, and she was probably right. The dishes she suggested were the ones that appeared on almost every table in the restaurant, not the kung pao chicken and sweet wu-xi spareribs, but things like burnished belly pork set into a dome of sticky rice and jujubes; braised tendon (really oxtail, but wonderful); ham with yam; and a dish of Shanghai crystal shrimp, stir-fried briefly with a little stock and a bit of cornstarch, that was almost shocking in its simplicity.
Not everybody who comes into the restaurant is Chinese, but they are all treated as if they are, and sometimes that's all you can ask.
SHANGHAI BAMBOO HOUSE: 933 W. Duarte Road, Monrovia. (626) 574-5960. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Mon., 5-9:30 p.m. MC, V. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout.Recommended dishes: dried tofu with boltonia zdanaica; rice soup; cold chicken; pork belly with sticky rice; pork wrap; yam with ham in wine sauce; soup dumplings.