Of all the restaurants I’ve been to during these pandemic times, none is taking it so seriously (while remaining open) as One Dragon, the Shanghai-style place near Mala Sichuan. If you pop in on the street, you pick up a menu just inside the door and stay there while you order. You don’t ever come more than a few feet into the small storefront — walk in, read the menu, order, go back to your car or windowshop the strip mall, and then pick up your order and go. (Or you can have it delivered or phone it in.)
So I found out last month when I tried it out for the first time. Food I’d never sampled before was explicitly explained to me as Shanghai-style and my preliminary research into this cuisine led me straight into the same old humbling experience of realizing once again how much there is to learn about Asian cooking.
There is no such thing, strictly speaking, as “Shanghai cuisine.” Instead there are about a half-dozen different Shanghai cuisines. There’s your basic Benbang — “local cuisine from Shanghai,” which at a mere 400 years old is the youngest of China’s ten national cuisines — and then the stuff that has been influenced by nearby Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. And then you have Western-influenced Haipai cuisine, which itself is divided kaleiscopally into British, French, German and Russian styles.
Every Chinese city is at least as complicated as modern-day Houston, it seems, and many of them have been that way for centuries if not millennia longer than Houston has even existed.
The rest of my research led me to believe that Shanghai-style food was somewhat fancy and high-tone, but that’s not what you get for the most part at Dragon One. This is comfort done just right — it’s not the comfort food I was raised on, and yet somehow it hit that universal comfort food chord and wound up being a place I will return to again and again.
And though they be incredibly delicious, it won’t be for Dragon One’s dumplings and xiao long bao (soup dumplings) alone, though the meat-brothy, gingery flavor bombs are one of China’s great gifts to civilization. I live a long way from One Dragon, and it was my intention to take them home. Few from two orders of six apiece survived the car trip to my son’s house halfway home — barely enough to give him a respectable lunch I’d promised him. You really can’t eat just one, even if you are in the car. The crispy bottom pan fried pork dumplings were another treat, their browned bottoms given them something of an eggy texture, as in the browned top of a baked quiche.
No, good as those were, that wasn’t the dish that will bring me back there again and again. That would be item 5-05 on the new menu: noodles topped with ground pork, mixed with scallion oil, sesame paste, and soy sauce. Good lord were these good — vermicelli-like almost al dente wheat noodles lightly bathed in that sauce, one that somehow comes out earthy, fragrant, peaty and rich like a perfect mushroom soup. It’s one of those dishes I could eat exclusive of all else for days at a time and at $7.99 I might be able to make that happen.
Which brings up another point — this is a very inexpensive restaurant, but the portions are not massive. If you want to have a feast, be prepared to order many items, but also be prepared to enjoy them all. And those dumplings — if you want them to survive the trip home, don’t get into them in the car — not even once.