A tale of two menus

If you can't read Chinese, you're better off eating at Huangpu River rather than ordering takeout

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The name is the same, and the plain but comfortable interior looks the same, but this isn't the Huangpu River I reviewed approximately eight years ago. No longer can we have that rare Shanghai soup dumpling -- the one with the soup inside; in fact, we can't have any dim sum at all. The restaurant is under new management and everything is new -- the owners, the chef, and the menu.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/12/2012 (3523 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The name is the same, and the plain but comfortable interior looks the same, but this isn’t the Huangpu River I reviewed approximately eight years ago. No longer can we have that rare Shanghai soup dumpling — the one with the soup inside; in fact, we can’t have any dim sum at all. The restaurant is under new management and everything is new — the owners, the chef, and the menu.

There’s nothing new about the takeout menu, though, which reads like most you’ve ever seen, right down to the dry wontons, chop sueys, chow meins and anything sweet and sour. But look on the other side and it becomes clear that this isn’t just another neighbourhood takeout joint. These listings are printed in Chinese only, close to 200 of them, with not a single translation — annoying to those of us who won’t be able to eat authentic Chinese at home, but proof, on the other hand, that the restaurant caters to a knowledgeable Chinese clientele.

In other words, for the real stuff you’ll just have to visit the restaurant, where the wide-ranging in-house menu lists all those mysterious items in English — possibly even more of them — with glossy colour photographs as helpful guides. The chef, we were told, has cooked in different areas of China, and the menu features dishes from various provinces. Portions are copious enough to feed four to six easily, with leftovers, with most main courses are priced from $10.95 to $12.95. The choices are varied and interesting enough to give me a headache when trying to make decisions. The servers though, were wonderfully patient during my dithering, and knocked themselves out to help.

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Sizzling Iron-Plate Eggplant

The hot sour soup was robust and flavourful, but needed a few splashes of Chinese red vinegar to live up to its name. It wasn’t actually needed, but the same vinegar is optional in the delicately flavoured deluxe seafood soup, liberally crammed with bits of shrimp, scallops, squid, bean cake, squiggles of jellyfish, and streaks of egg white — so satisfying I was inclined to forgive the many pieces of fake crab meat.

There are a number of interesting cold dishes. Crunchy, noodle-like jellyfish with slices of chicken, glossed with a sesame sauce is common enough. Not, however, the mysteriously named Icy Smoked Petittoes, which we assumed was a misspelling of potatoes, but which turned out to be chewy, galantine-like slices of boned pigs feet, jazzed up by a bracing topping of ice-cold minced garlic and chili. And not the harmless-sounding but tongue-searing surprise of Spicy Beef with Cucumbers, which was one of the hottest dishes I’ve ever had — spicy dishes are marked by pepper symbols, but they don’t always tell the whole story.

The undisputed winner of two visits was the superb Sizzling Iron-Plate Eggplant, the skin crisp, the inside meltingly tender, stuffed on one visit with ground pork, on another with sliced pork, but on both grilled to a miraculous crispness and cloaked in a slightly sweet, slightly nippy sauce, with a few token spears of broccoli on the side.

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Guang Han Wu (L), owner/chef, and Mei Zhi Yang with Braised Eggplant With Soy On Sizzling Iron, Walnut Shrimp and Hakga Special Salted Chicken at the Huang Pu River restaurant.

Another gem — listed as Chicken in a Copper Pan — turned out to be little bone-in nuggets strewn with whole garlic cloves and slices of ginger, sealed in foil and baked, a process that concentrated the flavours wonderfully. Also excellent was Three Sauce Chicken, cooked in soy sauce, wine and sesame oil.

A simple-sounding but delicious dish of stir-fried crunchy green beans sprinkled with salty crumbs of pork was only moderately spicy. They didn’t hold back on the spices for the chili-flecked Mapo Tofu bean cake with pork, and I also liked the tender chunks of pork boldly seasoned with cumin, and the beef stir-fried with mushrooms in a rich brown sauce,

Don’t miss the plump, juicy shrimp dotted by candied walnuts — not (thankfully, at least for my taste) glopped up with mayonnaise as I’ve sometimes had it elsewhere. Also good was a combination of shrimp, scallops and remarkably tender strips of squid stir-fried with gai lan and plenty of garlic.

As if 200 items on the menu aren’t enough, there are specials listed in Chinese only on a board near the entrance, and our server was kind enough to translate some of them, and wise enough to steer us to two of them. Both were terrific — salty-crisp balls of sweet-fleshed basa fish in the lightest possible coating of crumbs, and a casserole of an unnamed fish (basa, I think) in an intense, almost winey sauce.

The Singapore-style vermicelli with tiny shrimp and bits of barbecued pork was OK, but I think I’d skip it next time, since it is available everywhere, in equally OK versions. I definitely would skip the ho fan flat rice noodles with beef that tasted pulpy from tenderizing in a bland, undefinable sauce.

The only dessert is a kind of watery tapioca; I don’t recommend it.

Service was attentive and super-friendly, although by 6 p.m. on a Saturday night, we were in competition with innumerable takeout orders, and it did occasionally bog down. Like most Pembina Highway addresses, this one is also almost invisible, so note that it is just past Plaza Drive, and the entrance to the strip mall is marked by the huge A&W sign.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

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