Shanghai 456 is the epitome of a “hidden gem” in Edmonton.
HIDDEN… It is located in the small cafeteria of the Edmonton Flying Club at Blatchford Airport… yes the one in city centre. The first time I went to Shanghai 456 was on a weekend. Driving down Airport Rd, the area was barren making us wonder if we were headed in the right direction… until we see a strip full of all kinds of stereotypical asian cars – Hondas, Mazdas, BMWs, etc. (did I mention I’m Chinese?)… and we knew we had found Shanghai 456.
As the Shanghai 456 team tell me, they opened a little over a year ago. In general, Shanghai 456 isn’t entirely well known in Edmonton but those who do know of their hidden establishment, tend to return time and time again for the amazing xiaolongbao and wor tip (more on that later).
GEM… Chef Wong, the owner/operator was previously affiliated with Shanghai 456 in Macau. And in chatting with those from the Portuguese-Chinese region, I understand Shanghai 456 was a very popular and renowned restaurant. Chef Wong’s Edmonton location has the best Shanghai food in this city! Heck, I’d venture to say most likely the best Shanghai food in Alberta AND when compared to Vancouver (arguably Canada’s mecca for Shanghai cuisine), Chef Wong’s xiaolongbao & flaky black sesame pastry would still rival many of the overcrowded Shanghai restaurants.
For those who aren’t familiar with Shanghai food, it is very different from the typical Cantonese cuisine or the spicy Szechuan dishes. If you’re interested in reading more about the history and characteristics of the cuisine, Wikipedia actually has quite a good description.
One of the more popular Shanghai dishes is xiaolongbao, the direct translation of this is Little Basket Buns (referring to the bamboo baskets that the buns are steamed in). Common English nicknames are XLB or Soup Dumplings. Some people may even refer to them as Little Dragon Buns (as the word “long” can mean bamboo baskets or dragon). XLBs are usually filled with pork but at times you may also be able to find XLBs with crab meat. What makes XLBs so special is the soup-factor. Great XLBs have a thin wrapper containing meat filling and hot soup. When you bite into the delicate dumpling, steaming hot, porky broth will spill out. You may be wondering how they get the hot soup in the dumplings, and the secret ingredient is jellied stock (aka. aspic). There are different techniques to eating these dumplings so one doesn’t burn his/her tongue, or lose too much soup. I bite a small hole into the wrapper, suck most of the soup and eat the rest of the dumpling.
In Alberta, more often than not XLBs are poorly made resulting in gummy or thick wrappers, lack of soup, or worse soup regurgitating into the filling creating a non-soupy mushy filling. XLBs are served with dark vinegar and slivers of ginger. They are highly addictive when made well. In fact, I introduced D to these and he’s been hooked ever since.
Chef Wong’s XLBs are quite masterful – lots of soup, thin wrapper, great flavour in the filling. During their busy Sunday dim-sum service, you’ll see baskets of XLB on every table. Although the crab version has really good flavour, I prefer the porky-ness of the regular kind. Compared to the XLBs of my Vancouver childhood, I would say the only thing missing is more ginger in the filling but stuffing in the slivers from the vinegar is a good fix. Considering other Shanghai restaurants in Alberta, Shanghai 456’s XLBs are not only superior in flavour, they are priced well. The pork filled dumplings are $6.50 for 6 and $9.50 for 6 crab-filled dumplings. At many other places in Calgary or Edmonton, XLBs could be as expensive as $10-12 for 5-6 dumplings. (In Vancouver, it isn’t uncommon to see 5 XLBs for $4.
The use of alcohol to cook proteins is one characteristic of Shanghai cuisine. A popular dish is Drunken Chicken. Free range chicken is generally poached and soaked in a rice wine (or sherry), then served cold. D and I both agreed that Shanghai 456’s version is great. The chicken and wine flavours are quite pronounced, it’s appropriately salty and packed full of umami. If you’re going to eat the skin, the only thing to watch out for is the occasional feather that’s still stuck in there.
Two of our favourite vegetable dishes are the garlic pan fried pea tendrils & the XO fried green beans. The beans were pan fried, still firm with the pungency of scallop & dried shrimp from the XO sauce. We like our green beans with a strong garlic flavour and at home, would normally throw in more minced garlic. The pea tendrils were cooked well with great garlic flavour. The tendrils were tender but not overcooked. Makes me miss early summer when pea tendrils are more bountiful.
Chef Wong also does a mean pastry. His turnip puff pastry is to-die-for. I mean, look at the gazillion flaky layers! The filling includes shredded turnip, carrots, ham, and green onions. As D says, “It tastes like a Chinese Chicken Pot Pie”.
The melt-in-your-mouth puff pastry is also used in the Black Sesame Blossom. The layers of pastry form full-petaled dainty blossoms which are filled with a sweet black sesame filling. Forget 2-bite brownies, I’d rather have the 2-bite blossom.
Beside juicy XLB, Chef Wong also serves other types of dumplings. One such dumpling is the “Wor Tip” (aka. Beef Potstickers), a hit with many diners. They are pan fried golden brown just like normal potstickers or gyozas, but the kicker in Chef Wong’s version is the hot beefy soup inside. In fact, the first time I had these the soup went dribbling down my chin… attractive I know.
Chef Wong’s dumplings also come in sweet versions. At the end of each meal, he usually sends a round of complimentary dessert dumplings to the tables. On our first visit, we had his black sesame dumpling wrapped in coconut flavoured glutinous rice. They were great, not too sweet. We received complimentary aforementioned black sesame blossoms on our second visit along with a new menu item – Leisha black sesame balls, which are wrapped in a rice dough and covered in a concoction of sugar and flour made by grinding yellow beans.
All in all, being new to this city, Chef Wong’s creations at Shanghai 456 make me feel at home. With D and I both addicted to his dumplings, I’m guessing we’ll be here at least once a week.