Friday, December 12, 2008

Dish on Dining: Shan Dong

What’s All the Fuss Oakland Lunchers?
528 10th St. (near Webster), Oakland
PH: 510.839.2299
Open Tues.–Sun., 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m. (till 10 p.m. on Fri. and Sat.)
Major credit cards accepted (reservations for large groups)
Web site

In the United States, Chinese cuisine is primarily influenced by Cantonese dishes from Guandong Province in Southern China (where many early immigrants came from) and Hong Kong (where high-end culinary chops are tested).

But sometimes I crave the food from the north, often characterized by tender meats, dumplings and hot spices to warm your insides in the face of the brutal cold weather. I had the cravings recently with the change in seasons, and finally went to check out Shan Dong Mandarin Restaurant, the often-mentioned place for good northern Chinese cuisine.

This tiny restaurant in Oakland’s Chinatown gets a lot of raves for its dumplings, which you can sometimes see them make at the front along with the hand-pulled noodles. Since it’s in Chinatown, it also makes it another lunch option for me during the work week.

When I first arrived, the restaurant was already packed with office workers. I noticed there were several large tables filled with workers who apparently like to come here and eat together. (Hmm, my office never goes out to lunch in such a large group unless someone’s quitting.) The décor is that of your typical hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant with mirrored walls, old Chinese paintings and colorful paper with Chinese calligraphy.

I was seated in one of the small tables and asked to share with an older gentleman. This is the Chinese version of the communal table trend except it wasn’t planned that way but created out of necessity. I got off on the wrong foot with my tablemate because I smiled at him politely and then proceeded to pour myself a cup of tea. But I accidentally picked up his cup (which was empty BTW). He tried to wrestle it back from me, which I thought was odd since he wasn’t using it, and then I discovered my cup off near the wall.

After that mini skirmish, I ordered a plate of the Special Shan Dong Dumplings ($6.95) made with pork and vegetables. You get a plate of 10 huge dumplings that is definitely enough for a meal.

First off, I was really put off by the appearance of the dumplings. They really looked dumpy. I guess one might think of it as home-made or “rustic,” but it really looked poorly made to me. The skin was thick and kind of mealy in texture, and the inside was your basic chopped pork and vegetable filling with nothing exceptional in taste. I was really disappointed to know that people considered this the best dumplings in town because I’ve enjoyed better at dim sum restaurants like Koi Palace in Daly City.

Side note: For lunch, everyone is always given a complementary bowl of Hot and Sour Soup, which is the most common dish associated with Northern Chinese cuisine. Shan Dong’s version wasn’t necessarily really spicy. So the soup is fairly mild and balanced, which suited my tastes.

Stuffed with the dumpy dumplings, it took a couple of weeks before I decided to give Shan Dong another try. Again, I arrived to a nearly packed restaurant (again filled with office workers) and was seated at a round table that I shared with a guy who was reporting for jury duty at the nearby courthouse.

This time I ordered the Mandarin Beef Soup Noodles ($6.95), and added $1 for the hand-pulled noodles. I love beef noodle soup from the north because of the richness of the broth and the tender beef flavored with star anise.

The bowl came out looking very common and not at all Northern. It was spotted with western broccoli, button mushrooms and zucchini. Most Northern-style dishes have preserved vegetables often diced thinly, adding to the exotic flavors. To me, I could have made the same thing at home.

The beef pieces were the only redeeming ingredient. They were tender and very tasty, with the distinctive mix of Northern spices that are hearty and warm. The hand-pulled noodles, however, were another disappointment, just like the dumplings.

The noodles were clumpy and short, looking very amateurish. Northern-style noodles are often thick like Japanese udon, and I often thought of them as worms eating them growing up. While Shan Dong’s noodles were thick, they had a starchy taste and just didn’t look at all like noodles. They just looked like poorly made pasta.

For the price and having to deal with waits, I just couldn’t imagine coming back for a third try. I don’t really understand all these office workers who come here for lunch when there are so many other better tasting Asian restaurants in the area. Sure, they have the big round tables but I get a sense that Shan Dong has past its prime, if it ever had one.

Single guy rating: 1.75 stars (Dumpy starched dishes)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Shan Dong on Urbanspoon


Passionate Eater said...

I am sorry about the experience--especially about that awkward tea cup thing. The old guy should have just said, "Oh, I think that is mine," instead of doing the wrestle. And the pictures looked unappetizing, similar to your descriptions. I wonder if they have a good hand-pulled noodle place in SF/Oakland where they pull the noodles in front of you (or through a window) so that you can see.

Nate @ House of Annie said...

They probably got a Cantonese chef who doesn't know a thing about good Northern cuisine. Or, as you said, they are past their prime and don't care any more. Cruising on the accolades of the past and poor palates of the office workers.

Anonymous said...

I tried this place a year ago after moving to to the area and reading about it on yelp. I am half chinese and grew up eating in places which were my mother's favorites and was eager to try new places. What a huge disappointment! It reminded me of why I never trusted the Best of the East Bay when it came to chinese food. The noodles were very tough and doughy. Even worse was the soup which was so incredibly salty it was inedible. I returned it to the server and he said they've used the same recipe for 30 years and never had any complaints. Ha! Taste it, I said.

杰明 said...

Hi there,
I’m writing an article on my Asian lifestyle blog about an Italian/ Chinese noodle meal; could I borrow a pic from this post? I hope this isn’t a trivial request. Good work on your site! The time and effort has certainly been noticed.