Dining Review: Asian cuisine surprises at Shang Hai

Vietnamese Meatballs, or 'nem nuong phan,' are a do-it-yourself project for diners at Shang Hai Oriental Restaurant: Roll up bits of the pork meatballs along with herbs in moistened rice-paper wrappers, and dip in the peanut sauce.

Photo by Dave Darnell // Buy this photo

Vietnamese Meatballs, or "nem nuong phan," are a do-it-yourself project for diners at Shang Hai Oriental Restaurant: Roll up bits of the pork meatballs along with herbs in moistened rice-paper wrappers, and dip in the peanut sauce.

Some diners are creatures of habit, always ordering the same item at certain restaurants. It's not an adventurous way to eat, but there is a certain comfort in knowing that a meal as reliable as Thanksgiving dinner awaits you when you want it.

It's not my general MO, though I'd certainly fallen into this pattern at Shang Hai Oriental Restaurant on Poplar. For more than two decades, I've ordered the hot and sour soup and the egg rolls, the former a cure for a stuffy head and the latter a sheer savory delight. I'll remain loyal to these stellar examples and continue to order them when that's what I crave, but now I've sampled from the Vietnamese and Thai menus, and there is no unringing that bell.

Egg rolls offer sheer savory delight at Shang Hai.

Photo by Dave Darnell

Egg rolls offer sheer savory delight at Shang Hai.

The Kang masamun at Shang Hai Oriental Restaurant is a heady delight.

Photo by Dave Darnell

The Kang masamun at Shang Hai Oriental Restaurant is a heady delight.

The fresh and plentiful herbs, the balance of sweet, sour and spicy, the lightness of many of the dishes in Asian cooking -- it's all so appealing to the senses and the sensibilities, and we've been eating it frequently these days. Talking about it at

work, a friend mentioned her fondness for the pork meatballs at Shang Hai. Another said that when he goes in, the servers know he wants spring rolls. That reminded me of a visit long ago when I ordered the banh xeo, or Vietnamese special pancake.

And so two of us ended up at Shang Hai last week, assembling our own Vietnamese B-B-Q meatball roll with rice paper, lettuce and mint, or nem nuong phan.

At the same meal, we also ordered the pancake. Both dishes come with fresh herbs and lettuce, and the first thing that was delivered to us was a plate with a stack of basil, cilantro, mint, sliced cucumber and crisp green leaf that was about the size of my head.

The pancake was even better than I remembered. The batter is ethereal, a mix of rice flour and coconut milk that cooks to a wisp of a crepe and enfolds shrimp, pork, mushrooms and bean sprouts. We pulled off bits and tucked them in pieces of lettuce, nestled with the herbs, and dipped them in the lightly sweetened fish sauce flecked with red pepper.

Be still. We took a moment then, and I'm taking another now to simply feel gratitude that such beautiful foods exist and that we can eat them for less than $8. It's extraordinary, really.

Next is when the interactive platform of the meal came in (other than the eating, which was heartily under way). The meatballs are a do-it-yourself project, which was fun for us and will be for many others, though I keep getting puzzled looks when I explain it.

"Why don't they just assemble it for you?" is the question I'm asked again and again.

The answer is, "Because they don't."

Anyway, you get a lesson to start -- the server will show you -- and you'll get the hang of it quickly. My lunch partner rolled something that vaguely resembled a half-destroyed burrito on his first try, but by the third roll he had it figured out.

A bowl of hot water is placed in the center of the table, and 10 generous pork meatballs are served on a platter. The plate of herbs already on the table was joined by a small bowl of pickled carrot slivers and a bowl of peanut sauce (which we largely ignored in favor of the remaining fish sauce from the pancake).

The rice papers are hard flat disks, but they'll become your wrappers after a quick spin through the bowl of water. When it's wet and pliable, spread it across your plate and assemble your roll. Detailed instructions take too much space to write, so just remember this: The paper is pliable, so feel free to stretch it within reason. But the filling needs to stay in place when you're rolling and tucking, so keep a gentle grip on it with your pinkies and ring fingers while the other two and your thumbs do the rolling.

It's easy.

Dunk, eat, and repeat. You'll get 10 hearty rolls, far more than enough for a meal for two (particularly with the pancake). The fresh herbs, crisp and cool against the hot and succulent meat, will make your eyes roll.

The Thai menu comes with a warning: We ordered chicken larb to go one night last week, not officially as part of the review. (A note: Food is ordered to-go for review only if it's food that is often carry-out food, such as pizza or sandwiches, and then only after it's been eaten fresh and in-house. But Shang Hai does an excellent job of carry-out, even packing up sauces instead of putting them on anything that might get mushy.)

The larb, finely chopped chicken (you can choose other meats) cooked with garlic, onion, lime and chilies, was so spicy that I might have sent it back if I'd been at the restaurant. Maybe -- but I have a high tolerance and a great love for spicy food. Anyone who doesn't needs to speak up. We made no specific request as to heat level, but even my old standby, the hot and sour soup, was spicier than usual that night. Maybe there was a heavy hand at work in the kitchen. The soup was fine, as delicious and soothing as ever.

My singular disappointment was the tom yum kang on the Thai menu. Not only was the overall flavor profile of the soup too tame, but it also contained tough pieces of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves that are too fibrous to eat. However, I think the soup was prepared without MSG, and I take full responsibility for that; thinking back on the order, I'm certain I gave the impression I didn't want it in anything when I asked it be left out of one item.

I especially enjoyed a few other items worth a quick mention, though an omission here doesn't mean something is not good. While I didn't try any of the Chinese entrées -- this was strictly Thai and Vietnamese -- I've tasted numerous bites here and there in the past and have found both the chicken in curry sauce and the diced pork with dried red peppers very good. But we couldn't turn down the special Chinese chicken wings when we discovered they were -- heaven help us -- stuffed with seasoned pork. And forgive us, but we loved them too.

The kang masamun (Thai menu; these take a bit of work to find) was a heady delight from first bite to last. Potatoes, onion, bamboo shoots and shrimp (our choice of meat) rested beneath the placid surface of coconut milk gilded with a sheen of red chili oil. It was lush, and while soothing at first, the heat slowly built, revealing a complexity in the soup much like the one I'd found in the restaurant itself.

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Shang Hai Oriental Restaurant

Food:

Service:

Atmosphere:

Address: 1400 Poplar.

Telephone: (901) 722-8692.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Reviewer's choices: Hot and sour soup with meat ($2.65 and $4.95); special egg roll ($1.40); special Chinese chicken wings (six per order, $5.45); Vietnamese special pancake (banh xeo, $7.50); Vietnamese B-B-Q meatball roll with rice paper, lettuce and mint (nem nuong phan, 10 per order, $15); kang masamun ($7.45 for lunch and $9.95 for dinner).

Alcohol: Beer only.

Star Ratings

Poor: Zero stars

Good: One star

Very Good: Two stars

Excellent: Three stars

Extraordinary: Four stars

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--Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223

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