By Frank Sabatini Jr.
We arrived with a maniacal hankering for xiao long bao dumplings, but they became a footnote compared to everything else we ate at Shanghai Bun.
Billed as a Chinese tapas restaurant, and located way down Rosecrans Street in a quaint section of Point Loma once known as Roseville, the place feels more like a neighborhood tavern where you might loll over beers and burgers rather than slurp on dumplings that squirt little pops of broth into your mouth when biting into them.
Soft-core Asian accents flow throughout the full bar and dining area on one end of the space, and into a modest semi-private dining room on the other side. Wherever you sit, you’re pretty much in eyeshot of flat-screen televisions. (Eight of them were tuned to different channels during our visit — and thankfully their sound was muted.)
With about seven parking slots in the back and reasonable opportunities to park on the surrounding streets, you’re afforded a refreshing break from the dining hustle of the gayborhood and its surrounding Uptown areas. Prices are noticeably cheaper, too, especially if you hit daily happy hour as we did on a recent Sunday afternoon.
Xiao long bao, known otherwise as Shanghai dumplings, are incredibly orgasmic when made right. Here, we discovered, they’re hit and miss.
In some online reviews I read, customers effused over the dumplings, claiming they offered comforting broth and flavorful pork meat inside. Others reported the “liquid gold” was zapped out of them.
A foursome of the dumplings hubby and I ordered ($4 during happy hour) contained barely a few drops of the broth. One was completely depleted of any moisture due to a torn bottom. The pork meatball inside each, however, was relatively juicy. But that ultimately derives its flavor from gelatinous fat that liquefies during steaming.
As for the dumpling casings, they were properly pleated and crimped. Those design details allow you to grab the stuffed dough purses with your chopsticks. Yet for this clumsy-handed diner, dumplings are slippery specimens that can only be restrained with fingers or a fork.
The menu is dominated by about two dozen tapas, allowing you to enjoy a veritable dim sum experience if you stay within that category. Among them are excellent pot stickers filled generously with pork and Napa cabbage. Douse them in the sweet and tangy house-made dumpling sauce sitting on your table, along with a dab of Chinese mustard, and you’ll feel transported into some old-school Chinese restaurant.
A pair of pork buns (char siu bao) was less thrilling, despite how well the honey-roasted meat took to its sweetish barbecue sauce. The problem was that there wasn’t enough of the saucy pork to saturate the white spongy buns beyond their small craniums.
Our waitress, who oddly wasn’t aware that Shanghai dumplings contain broth, highly recommended we try the crispy tofu after I expressed disappointment in the dumplings and to a lesser degree, the pork buns. We didn’t see it on the happy hour or regular menus, but we took her suggestion and ended up paying only $5.99 for three skewers of the cubed matter.
The texture was luxuriously soft, like cheesecake. Bedding the dish was “teriyaki sauce,” as we were told. But it was really more like the aforementioned house admixture of soy sauce, vinegar and sugar designated for the dumplings. It paired terrifically to the sesame-stuffed tofu — better in fact than anything else on our table.
After also polishing off a bowl of peppery hot-and-sour soup, which carried more depth of flavor compared to most, and an order of standard cream cheese wontons (hubby’s go-to), the star of our lunch emerged: two pork belly sliders. They’re available only on the regular tapas menu for $5.99, and well worth the price.
Served within the same bao buns as the barbecue pork, these tender slabs of belly meat combined with liberal smears of hoisin sauce delivered admirable oomph to the fluffy, steamed buns. We washed them down with a couple of $5 happy-hour beers — a “perky blonde” ale from Resident Brewing and a “Cali-squeeze” blood orange hefeweizen by SLO Brewing. Both were served ice-cold.
Daily happy hour is from 3 to 6 p.m. In order to qualify for the food and drink bargains, you must make a minimum $5 purchase of any beverage. You then qualify for a dozen different tapas starting at $3 apiece.
With such alluringly low price points, we easily skipped over the classic regular-priced entrees, which include various proteins combined with a choice of sauces such as kung pao, honey walnut, and spicy Szechuan. There are also rice and noodle dishes, as well as ginger-scallion fish, eggplant in garlic sauce, and salmon in black bean sauce.
For consumers with extra-hearty appetites, the restaurant offers a tempting brunch deal from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. Shell out $30, and you get to wash down all the dim sum your stomach can hold with a variety of bottomless mimosas.
Now there’s an offer I’ll take any day over those all-you-can-eat spaghetti and pancake deals that would bore me after a second serving.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.