Shanghai Noodles is located on a quiet stretch of Balboa in a tiny storefront space that, given the bright lights and spare décor, could just as easily house a dry cleaner. Step inside and you'll notice that the specials hung on the wall are printed only in Chinese, the television in the corner appears to have been purchased at a garage sale, and the trio of statues on the counter (a Buddha of Wealth, a Japanese good-luck cat, and Kenny from South Park) shows a certain international flare. Maybe you'll also notice — as my friends Michelle, Corinne, and I did when we arrived on a Saturday night — that the place is packed and everyone inside is Chinese.
It's possible, however, that none of these things will strike you as profoundly as the stink. The smell is pungent and heavy, reminiscent of fish sauce, and seemed to greet us physically, like a hug from a musty bum. The source? Someone had just dug into a plate of stinking tofu, a notoriously malodorous Chinese delicacy that I also ordered despite vigorous objections from our waitress. At first she gave me the stink eye, then the double stink eye. “You won't like it,” she warned. “It's too stinky!” Ever adventurous, I stood my ground, so she added her mouth to the gesture, resulting in what can only be described as the stink face. Looking back, I should have taken her advice. But by then the scent that had greeted us had subsided, and I figured, How stinky could it be?
As it turned out, pretty stinky. It was a stink that could make other stinks recoil in horror, a stink so mean it could beat a man senseless, drink his whiskey, then run a marathon through manure in his best suit. It was so dense we could almost see it hovering over our table during the brief period we spent acquainting ourselves with stinking tofu.
Thankfully, none of the other dishes at Shanghai Noodles is particularly stinky. Instead we found good, hearty, authentic fare priced so affordably that two people would be hard pressed to spend more than $20 on a meal. As the name implies, the place specializes in the cuisine of Shanghai, a city known for (among other things) sweet dishes, the familiar pot sticker, and a generous use of both vinegar and the Chinese rice wine known as shao hsing. Shanghai Noodles' offerings are slim by Chinese-restaurant standards, but abundant by most others: A single-page dinner menu is supplemented by a 50-dish list of dim sum, noodles, soups, and cold plates, meant to be checked off item by item. I love those lists, although they can also be dangerous: By the time we were done checking things off, we had ordered enough food for 10 people, earning an upgrade from a humble four-top to a circular banquet table with a Lazy Susan.
Oddly enough, the first dishes arrived before we had placed our order (our waitress had peeked at the dim sum list). Thus, as we contemplated the menu and sipped tea, we feasted on cool, clean-tasting drunken chicken touched with the funky tang of shao hsing, and rich, chilled salted duck encased in a creamy layer of fat. Michelle doesn't eat meat, but she enjoyed some simulated poultry action via traditional Shanghai-style vegetarian goose — tender, paper-thin sheets of bean curd wrapped around shiitake mushrooms, the whole bathed in a light, clear sweet sauce.
Next came a seaweed salad, which looked like something that had washed up on Ocean Beach that afternoon but proved a delightful blend of crisp, fresh seaweed drenched with a sharp vinegar-chili sauce. For $1.50, a bowl of savory soybean milk may be the best deal in San Francisco; meaty, feathery bits of fried tofu floated atop a sultry, addictive broth we could have spooned until 2003. Everyone raved about the crunchy, peppery mustard greens mixed with bean curd and brilliant green edamame, then raved again about the siu mai (open-topped dumplings) filled with sweet rice. At $9.95, the Shanghai-style wok-fried eel was the most expensive dish on the menu, and one of the best: thin, noodlelike strands of eel sautéed in a dark, thick, complex black bean sauce that qualified as “deep.”
We smelled our stinking tofu from 15 feet away, which isn't unusual (last year a Hong Kong stinking tofu vendor was fined $1,538 for air pollution). Our fellow diners also smelled it, turning in unison as if to ask, “Are you people insane?” The dish looked innocent enough — cubes of steamed tofu in a pool of orange sauce — but the stink, a result of fermentation, was so potent it could wilt a person's eyelashes. I tried a tiny bite (if you ask me, stinking tofu tastes like a blend of blue cheese, dirty socks, and three-week-old death), then placed it on the Lazy Susan and wheeled it around to my two companions. They shrank back from the table and issued a desperate request: “Make her take it away.” Luckily our waitress had kept an eye on us. I promised her we'd pay for the dish (Christ, I would have paid her triple to get rid of it) and was much relieved when she brought our introduction to stinking tofu to an end with a friendly “I told you so” smile.
Any one of our three soups could have fed several people, and all of them brought us back to the realm of delectability. Each came with a dark, flavorful broth and a heap of luscious wheat noodles. The first contained melting, savory-yet-sweet fried tofu puffs; the second, thin-sliced pork chops that exuded a powerful, barbecue-esque meatiness. Smoked fish soup fell between the other two (sweet but meaty, and still intense), its broth livened by a dash of warm, lingering five-spice powder.
Desserts confirmed our suspicion that Shanghai Noodles is the kind of good, solid, everyday restaurant a person could return to again and again. Chinese doughnuts were long, churrolike pastries so airy they could have floated away on a passing breeze, while the eight precious pudding proved a more substantial delight — a dense, hamburger-size sweet rice cake filled with hearty red bean paste and topped with bits of candied fruit. To finish, our waitress comped us an order of sesame-crusted pastries with dough so rich and flaky it could make a vegan write an ode to the joys of lard. As we bundled our leftovers into to-go boxes, she also promised to show us some uncooked stinking tofu, but before that could happen, a party of eight walked in and overwhelmed her.
“Next time!” she promised as we headed off into the night. I can hardly wait.