First Bite: New Shanghai

Finding a stellar meal in Chinatown can be a fraught proposition, what with all the maddening quality and consistency bugaboos to contend with. There are the Fading Stars (restaurants that used to be great but have lost their sparkle–the Peach Farms and the Chau Chow City’s), the Watered-Down Crowd Pleasers (putting out mediocre versions of Cantonese standards instead of the regional cuisines they’re actually good at), and the Minefields (a dozen or so amazing dishes alongside a glut of fair-to-middlin’ items…like New Jumbo Seafood and East Ocean City). The scene is such a mixed bag, that we often send friends and readers to our favorite Chinese-food haunts in Brookline, Malden, and Waltham.

New Shanghai, on Hudson St. close to Kneeland, has long languished in the Fading Star category, trading on its reputation as Julia Child‘s onetime go-to Chinatown haunt. But for foodies who’ve dined there recently, it’s been pretty darn abysmal. No longer.

With new ownership, the new New Shanghai (Newer Shanghai?) is hands down the best Chinese food in the ‘hood. I recognized several staff members there and, in fact, the chef, Yu Shihe, has been there “forever” (according to the woman answering the restaurant’s phone). So what’s the change? A conscious decision to become the source for ultra-spicy Szechuan and other regional dishes in the neighborhood. “No other restaurant in Chinatown is making good hot and spicy food,” explains the chef.

Still on offer are landlubbers options like Orange Chicken and Beef With Broccoli, but these, too, have been sharpened above the competitors’ wan versions. The masterpices, however, are the hot stuff, especially the dishes listed under the headings “Szechuan Appetizers,’ “House Specialties,” and “Chef’s Special.” Floral, tongue-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, toasted chilies, and neon-red chili oil abound.

Our current cravings:

(1) Szechuan Dan Dan Noodles ($4.25), peanuty and slightly sweet with a potent Szechuan peppercorn kick.

(2) Numbing Hot Shredded Bamboo Shoot ($4.95), which has as accurate a name as they come.

(3) Chung Qing Spicy Chicken ($10.95), velvety chunks of boneless meat, wok-charred with dried chili peppers and red bell pepper chunks.

(4) Boiled Beef Fillet with Red Pepper and Bean Sprouts ($12.95), tender swaths of lean beef basically simmered in a potent “soup” of hot chili oil.

With plenty of cold beers and a box of Kleenex (or copious napkins), it’s the perfect meal.