When I moved to NYC in 1991 there was no user friendly internet or Yelp or Gothamist top 10 lists or Google reviews or foodie blogs, to find a new Chinese restaurant you had to walk through Chinatown and try and size up places by how they looked and what was hanging in the window (NY Noodle Town) or swimming in the fish tanks (original Danny Ng’s). Lately I have been missing the spontaneity of just walking down a street in Chinatown and picking a new restaurant to eat at. So this week I Google searched for “Dumplings in Chinatown” and randomly clicked on one of the many pins that appeared on Google maps and told my friends to meet me there. Not quite the same as wandering down a street and randomly picking a place to eat, but more spontaneous than reading blog posts and Yelp reviews to pick a spot. So this is how we ended up at Shanghai Heping Restaurant with its impressively large awning and sidewalk presence but a rather modest dining room. Shanghai Heping Restaurant has lots of classic Shanghainese dishes and relatively little in the way of Americanized Chinese food.
The Dumplings: In Shanghai Heping Restaurant we did not stumble on a hidden gem of dumpling greatness, overall the dumplings were good but not outstanding. We tried the Pork & Crab Soup Dumplings, the Steam Seafood Dumplings, the Wontons Szechuan Style and the Fried Tiny Buns with Pork. The menu also includes Pork Soup Dumplings, Vegetable Buns, fried or steamed Pork Dumplings, and Vegetable Steamed Dumplings.
The Pork & Crab Soup Dumplings were quite good, with a lot of tasty crab roe and meat mixed onto the pork which gave the soup a yellow tinge, and the wrappers were just the right thickness to make supple little purses of filling and soup. Unfortunately the quantity of soup in the dumplings was pretty skimpy and kind of thin tasting. Maybe the larger mix of crab meat in the filling meant there was less pork and pork fat to flavor the soup.
The Wontons Szechuan Style were stuffed with a coarsely ground pork and either scallions or leeks, I am not sure which, and were quite good. This is a sort of unusual filling for this dish, the wontons are usually filled with finely minced pork. The filling was similar to the filling you usually find in Chinese pan-fried pork dumplings. The sauce was a mix of sesame chili oil and a smooth peanut sauce, that was tasty but lacked any real heat. You will want to eat these dumplings quickly after they arrive to your table because the sauce thickens and gets gloppy when it cools.
The Steamed Seafood Dumplings, which appeared to be stuffed with a mix of shrimp and a white flaky fish, were pretty large and filling but lacked flavor. They were basically a good vehicle for sopping up sauce and were useful for mopping up some of remaining Szechuan sauce from the wontons.
The Tiny Fried Buns with Pork are misnamed, the buns we got were big, bigger than a golf ball, like the size of a large satsuma or small tangerine. The fluffy, bready white buns were pan-fried on the bottom and steam cooked on the top and were served sprinkled with sesame seeds and slivered scallions. Generally I like the fluffy bread these buns are made of, but the meatball inside these buns was quite small and this dish mainly just filled me up without giving me much dumpling joy. Like the Seafood Dumplings these buns were mainly good for sopping up sauce.
The Dipping Sauce: Since I found the Seafood Dumplings and Tiny Fried Buns to be mainly useful as a vehicle for delivering sauce, it was disappointing that the soy dipping sauce was so unimaginative and one dimensional. It was a basic mix of soy, a little sesame oil and a touch of vinegar, nothing astounding. The black vinegar with slivered ginger that came with the soup dumplings was thick and intense and as usual was more than I could take.
The Location: Shanghai Heping Restaurant is Manhattan’s Chinatown on Mott Street Between Canal Street and Hester Street. This is part of Chinatown that over the past decade has expanded into, and largely displaced, Little Italy. The restaurant is on the East side of the street, mid-block and has a huge blue awning with big neon yellow Chinese characters above the awning.