Never Mind The Service: Dinner at Shanghai Cafe

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Shanghai Cafe
145 East 1300 South, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84115
Mon-Thu 11 a.m.- 9:30 p.m. Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sun 12:30 a.m.- 9:30 p.m.
801-322-1841
Reviewed by Fred Worbon, Tues., Nov. 11, 2008


Photo By: Kealan Shilling

Although my days as an herbivore have long since bitten the dust, I still have a soft spot for the meatless (or more accurately, the fake meat) entrees at Shanghai Cafe. I know that this place is far from being considered fine dining or even a comfortable and friendly place to hang out for a meal, but it’s one of my favorite spots in Salt Lake. Tucked away in an aging stripmall right off hooker alley on the northeast corner of 1300 south and State Shanghai Cafe simultaneously offers some of the worst service in town and some the most addictive vegetarian food I’ve ever eaten. The decor is similar to most stripmall Asian restaurants, sporting worn carpets, red lacquer ornately carved chairs with silk embroidered cushions covered in split and yellowing plastic, booths that move several inches when you sit down, and numerous fake plants. You will often hear Muzak-sounding versions of dated pop songs that sound as if a Chinese street performer was playing them.

The staff is rarely friendly, and if you’ve ever phoned in a to-go order, they can be almost disturbingly abrupt. On this visit a woman actually poured water on my hand as I reached for my glass. It’s not uncommon to have your waiter walk off while you’re still ordering or forget your drink. There is also a tendency to have your plates almost thrown at you when they’re brought out. Oddly enough, this is part of what I love about the place, deep down I think that everybody kind of wants to be abused as long as it seems like everybody else is being treated like shit too. One thing I have noticed eating at Shanghai regularly with friends and even joking about our experiences there over the years is that everybody I know always orders the same thing and even the meat eaters I know rarely make it past the vegetarian menu. This could be because the entire menu is behemoth in size, nearing 200 options since its recent revamping (not sure when since I don’t usually even open the menu these days) adding more Vietnamese fair. A brief poll of some of the SLUG staff showed that Angela Brown usually orders the Vegetarian Kung Pao Chicken ($7.95) which is also my wife’s favorite, Jeanette Moses gets the Tofu w/ Fresh Pineapple ($7.95), Adam Dorobiala gets the Schezwan Chicken ($7.95) sometimes vegetarian and sometimes not, while Meghann Griggs gets Vegetarian Chicken and Broccoli (also $7.95) and all of them admitted that they rarely stray from those dishes. This time around I decided to depart from my usual choices of Vegetarian Spring Rolls ($2.50) and Vegetarian Curry Chicken ($7.95) and I tried the Pot Stickers ($4.50) as well as the Vegetarian Vietnamese Curry Chicken [I know not much of a change, but what the hell, ($7.55)]. The Pot Stickers were a strange shape, kind of long and narrow and a little overcooked, but tasted like every other pot sticker I’ve tried. My entree was an interesting twist on a Chinese yellow curry with the addition of coconut milk and potatoes. It was sweet, almost like a Thai curry, but still had the savory spice of the yellow curry that I usually order. The fake chicken was cut into thin triangles and had a nice soft and gritty texture with a rich and salty taste. My wife had her usual Vegetarian Kung Pao Chicken ($7.95). This dish consists of small cubes of the same fake chicken with an assortment of chopped vegetables and peanuts in a savory brown broth with chili flakes. The “meat” was tender and the vegetables were a little on the soft side, but that leant itself well to the dish––an overly-crisp vegetable would distract from the rich flavors. As usual, the service was awkward and our waiter seemed inattentive and distracted, but the food came out fast and our water was kept full. I wouldn’t quite put Shanghai on my “guilty pleasure” list because the food is genuinely good, but with service like that you might want to think twice before trying to impress a first date there.

Just a side note to all the SLUG readers out there, my favorite Mexican food place (La 35) recently went out of business and I am looking for suggestions for a new place to go. I like divey places, the kind you are little afraid to go into. I do love The Red Iguana, so please don’t send me a million emails recommending I go there. What I’m looking for is someplace off the beaten path. Please shoot me an email at worbon@slugmag.com.