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Davis, California

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Dining in Davis: Shanghai Town

I was exploring an unknown territory also known as West Davis. I’d heard there was a Chinese restaurant with rather tasty food. Whether it was fact or fiction, I did not know. But on a cold Wednesday night, I decided to venture out and see for myself.

In a dark area known as the Westlake Plaza, there’s a restaurant called Shanghai Town. I say it was dark because the plaza had few lights or neon signs indicating that any business (or life) was in existence. I finally found Shanghai Town situated in an obscure location by a taqueria and a drycleaners.

I thought I would be entering a typical Chinese restaurant, decked out with big round tables, red tablecloths and gold dragon décor. However, what I encountered was far from typical – and not in a good way.

The menu board at the front of the restaurant had few selections and looked like those you’d find at a baseball stadium. But instead of listing hot dogs or beer, the board simply had “SPECIAL” with a few prices and no indication of what your order would comprise. I wasn’t even sure if I could order it during dinner hours.

I ran into a friend who was a frequent customer of the restaurant. He handed me a white paper menu and said I was lucky that the menu now came in English. Apparently, Shanghai Town recently updated their all-Chinese menu to include English descriptions. I wonder if they used to require that their customers be able to read Chinese characters.

There was another white board that listed more specials in Chinese, but to stay on the safe side I stuck to my paper menu. If I wasn’t special enough to read it, I probably shouldn’t be ordering it anyway.

My friend recommended that I try the Tan Tan noodle, Shanghai Clay Pot Soup, rice cakes and seafood pot-stickers. I noticed that there was a green to-go menu and decided to see if there were more selections. There seemed to be a large discrepancy between the white and green menus, both in prices and food items. There were some item overlaps, but the prices differed by about $1.

It took about 10 minutes before I could place my order. There was only one woman at the front counter who was running the whole restaurant. She’d periodically pop out from the back kitchen, shuffle around and head back in. Other patrons and I looked at each other as if we were thinking the same thing: “Uhh… when can I order?”

When I was finally served, I got the Tan Tan noodles, seafood pot-stickers and sesame chicken. I had read good things about the sesame chicken from daviswiki.org and thought you can’t go wrong with such a traditional dish.

Originally, I wanted to dine in. But after a few minutes of taking a closer look at the restaurant’s interior I changed my mind. The place looked run-down with peeling wallpaper borders, faded paintings and dirty furnishings. The few square tables were surrounded by chairs with pink cushions that had black, grimy dirt-marks. Shanghai Town’s only attempt at modernization was blue, hanging ceiling lamps that did nothing to rescue the restaurant’s aesthetics – or lack thereof.

At the table next to mine, food was being brought out to a family of five who opted to dine in. At this point I became even more assured in my decision to have take-out. The same woman who took my order set the food down and walked off without looking at the patrons. She didn’t ask if they were doing OK or gave them anything to drink. However, there was pitcher of water in the corner with foam cups next to them. I guess dine-in also meant self-service.

Their food, despite being served in mismatched dishware, looked home-made and quite appetizing. I couldn’t wait to indulge in mine.

After spending about 30 minutes waiting, my food was ready and the total was $19.34. Just then I saw a paper taped at an opposite corner from the checkout counter that said: “All items in green menu marked up by $0.50-$1.00.” The woman neither mentioned the markup to me and nor the fact that it applies to each item. I am still unsure of how much I actually paid for each of my dishes.

By the time I got home, it’d been about an hour since I left the house. I was willing to forgive the poor service, forgo the mismatched dishware and bypass the restaurant’s unsanitary looks. What I really cared about was how the food tasted.

The pot-stickers were plump but rolled up like a tortilla with openings on both ends. Although oily, I still enjoyed it as the seafood stuffing was fresh and flavorsome. The taste of chives was very prominent, but I like chives so that wasn’t a problem for me. What I wasn’t so thrilled about was the chewiness of its skin as if it’d been left around for too long. Generally, pot-stickers are boiled and then fried so that it’s soft and a little crispy.

I next tried the sesame chicken that looked like little balls of dough. The chicken was covered in so much batter that all I could taste was oil and dough. Although sesame chicken served at other restaurants are usually crispy and covered in sauce, at Shanghai Town it was soggy and flavorless. More than half the dish was left sauce-less.

The Tan Tan noodles, a traditional Chinese dish, looked like a black-colored-spaghetti. It came with spaghetti-like noodles on the bottom and thick sauce (mixed with ground pork) poured over the top. I mixed the noodles and sauce together uniformly. Although very spicy, it was decent as the sauce tasted like a mix of Hoisin sauce and soy sauce – two things I often use in my cooking.

All-in-all, I’d say the food at Shanghai Town was so-so. If I were living in West Davis, this place might be an option for to-go or delivery. On second thought, I wouldn’t order delivery. If the same woman who took my order worked as hostess/waitress/server/busser, chances are she’s also the deliverer. In which case, I wouldn’t get my food until a week after placing my order.

Driving across town and waiting in such an uncomfortable environment for average food is not worth it for me. The place, however, was crowded despite its poor service and appearance. Perhaps most of its customers live in West Davis and come for the convenience, or maybe there are certain dishes they particularly like. But if you live across town like I do and don’t want to take a chance, stick to your usual place the next time you’re craving for Chinese cuisine. At least then, you’ll know exactly what you’re paying for.

 

THUY TRAN can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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