Saturday, May 8, 2010

Simple Straightforward Shanghai - Southern Mini Town Restaurant (Hsiao Nan Guo)

When going out to a new restaurant, it's always nice to have a solid baseline, a reference point for what a respectable version of a certain cuisine is like. For Shanghai cuisine, I've been lucky enough to try ~15-20 different restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley alone over the years, and in thinking about what a good baseline for Shanghai eateries might be, I can think of 2 or 3, with Southern Mini Town (Chinese name, Hsiao Nan Guo) being one of them. There are definitely better Shanghai restaurants around town (and ones that are worse), but for a straightforward, decent version of this cuisine? Southern Mini Town fits the bill.

I remember stumbling upon this place years ago, when some friends and I were waiting for a table at Newport Seafood (which was next door, and has now moved a few blocks down the street). After realizing that the "1 hour wait" at Newport was going to be more like 1.5 hours or longer, we started looking around the plaza and found Southern Mini Town. Entering the restaurant (whose dining room is no bigger than a small living room), we sat down and ordered some standard Shanghai (and Zhejiang) style dishes and the I've found myself going back from time-to-time ever since.

(Note: English dish names are from the menu. Chinese dish names listed phonetically when possible. Thanks to my SGV Hounds for the translation help. :)

On a recent visit, my guests and I begin with the simple Suan Rohng Da Doh Miao (Large Pea Shoots Sauteed with Garlic).

This is a textbook example of this great Chinese Vegetable dish: A bit more aromatic and a better complement for most of the menu than the usual Sauteed Spinach.

The next dish to arrive is one of the more commonly found dishes in the San Gabriel Valley and shows off what Southern Mini Town does well: Suen Jian Rou Hsi (Shredded Pork with Bamboo Shoots).

Semi-fatty slivers of Marinated Pork are quickly sauteed with Bamboo Shoots in a light Soy Sauce braising liquid. It's well-balanced, only slightly salty and quite savory, and a perfect accompaniment for Steamed Rice. :)

One of the specials to look out for is their Hei Hsueh Yu (simply named, Black Cod). (Note: You should call ahead and ask if they have any Black Cod, or request that they stock it for the day of your visit). It's prepared 2 ways, in a Soup and then the main Black Cod filet and body are slow-braised.

The kitchen usually stocks a few Small Black Cod (~2 - 3 pounds) and Large Black Cod (~4+ pounds), so be sure to specify your preference (FYI: Even though you may have some leftovers, I've found the Larger Black Cod to be more enjoyable (fewer bones to work through with more meat).

For the Black Cod Soup, the Fish Head and Tail are cooked along with Napa Cabbage, Silken Tofu and their Gao Tahng (Housemade Broth (as a base)) and the result is an addictive, warming Soup with a beautiful balance of Pork essence and ocean breeze. Delicious! :)

Then the filet and body of the Black Cod is presented next, slow-braised to perfection.

Their Slow-Braised Black Cod is *so* buttery and tender, with a beautiful subtlety to the every bite. Excellent! :)

Southern Mini Town also makes a respectable Gahn Shao Hsia Ren (Hot Braised Sauteed Shrimp).

It's sweet, bursting with Garlic and spicy with an immediate light burn with their Chili, but it wears off quickly.

But probably their most outstanding dish is one of the most humble: Jio Huang Hsiang Gahn Rou Hsi (Shredded Pork with Bean Curd and Yellow Chives).

The dish itself is quite simple, but it's a testament to the kitchen that their version of this common dish is so standout: Super thin slivers of Dried Bean Curd, Yellow Chinese Chives and Marinated Pork are wok-sauteed to perfection. The Light Soy Sauce and touch of Sugar, combined with the great knifework really make this one of the best versions around town. :)

While not as lovely, their Nan Guo Doh Fu (Nanguo Special Bean Curd) still makes for an enjoyable Tofu dish.

The kitchen uses a different style of Tofu in this dish, with a firm outer layer, yielding to a silky, soft core. There's a nice textural contrast and their braising technique is just fine.

On another visit we try one of their specials (listed on the wall): Ta Tsai Dohng Suen (Ta Vegetable with Winter Bamboo).

I've never had Ta Vegetable before, but Southern Mini Town's version is excellent: The small leaf Vegetable is sauteed with Garlic and slices of Winter Bamboo, yielding a fragrant, pleasing, verdant dish to pair with heavier meat-based dishes.

If there's one major weak link with Southern Mini Town, it's their Jiang Nan Pastries, with two popular items failing miserably here. First, the ever-popular Xiao Lohng Bao ("XLB" or "Soup Dumplings", listed as "Shanghai Steamed Dumplings") are pretty mediocre. The skin is too thick, and the XLBs are just not very well made (you can tell that all things Dough are not the kitchen's strong suite).

Their Sheng Jian Bao (Pan Fried Dumplings) are even worse. They're tiny, malformed, burnt creations that should've never been served (it's been the same way all 3 times I've ordered it over the years).

But things bounce back quickly and strongly with another special dish listed on their wall: Shwei Suen Shao Rou (Dried Bamboo with Braised Pork Belly).

At the heart of this creation is their Dried Bamboo, which causes it to become crunchy and toothsome, but more importantly, intensely woodsy and irresistible. :) The only knock on this dish is that there's just not enough Braised Pork Belly, but otherwise, it's a real surprise.

We finish up the meal with the classic Gwei Hua Zi Ma Tahng Yuan (Sesame Rice Ball with Wine Soup).

Southern Mini Town makes a good version of this dessert, with a strong amount of Jio Niang (Fermented Rice), which results in an inherently aromatic Rice Wine aspect. The Tahng Yuan are little Rice Balls filled with Sweetened Black Sesame and topped with the always fragrant Sweet Olive Flowers. It can be a little uneven at times, sometimes a touch too sweet, other times just right, but overall, it's a good version, just a step behind the amazing version at Yu Garden.

On another visit, my guests and I start with their Hsueh Tsai Bai Yeh Doh (Preserved Vegetables with Bean Curd Sheets).

On this visit it's delicious: The Preserved Vegetables (Hsueh Tsai) provides enough sodium on its own to season the entire plate, and the Soy Beans and thin Bean Curd Sheets help to balance out the soft textural base. But on another visit, it turns out to be just a touch too salty.

Another of Southern Mini Town's strengths are their Clay Pot Casseroles. On this visit, we order their Sah Guo Liang Jing Yi (Braised Bean Curd Sheet with Stuffed Pork Casserole).

All of their Clay Pot Casseroles are served in a generous, huge portion, and this Braised Bean Curd Casserole's highlight are the 2 types of Bean Curd stuffed with Marinated Ground Pork.

This turns out to be one of their best Casseroles, with a deep, complex savoriness and a happy soul-warming quality. There's a strong White Pepper vein running throughout, along with their Homemade Pork Broth and Napa Cabbage. But it's the 2 types of Stuffed Bean Curd with Pork that is the most fascinating aspect of this soup. Both types are worth trying - one being slightly firmer and more concentrated, the other being looser and a bit more aromatic.

Their Doh Bahn Yu Pian (Fish with Black Bean Sauce) is a standard version of this dish.

The English name is humorously a mistake (perhaps transcribed from some other restaurant's menu) as there are no Black Beans nor Black Bean Sauce to be found in this dish. :) Instead, you get the sweetness from the Rice Wine, bits of Garlic, a nice level of heat from the Chili Sauce, which combines with pieces of Boneless Rock Cod. The Rock Cod itself is of average quality, tasting a bit muddy at times, but the Sauce itself is very good.

Next up is their Gahn Bian Si Ji Doh (Dry Braised Sword Beans).

This is another solid version of a common dish, with the Sword Beans being cooked just through, retaining a nice snap and crunch, while still being pliable.

Their Mapo Tofu (Bean Curd Szechuan Style) continues the trend set earlier, with a respectable version of one of the more popular Tofu dishes in Asia.

The kitchen uses a decent amount of Hua Jiao (Szechuan Pepper) to achieve a nice numbing quality, along with an immediate, up front spiciness. The Tofu and Sauce are fine, but the Ground Pork could use a bit more seasoning.

A surprisingly enjoyable Vegetable option on their wall of specials is the Ji Tsai Dohng Suen (Shepherd's Purse with Winter Bamboo).

There's an enjoyable fibrous quality to the Winter Bamboo without it being stringy. The just cooked through tenderness of the Bamboo pairs nicely with the Shepherd's Purse ultra-soft consistency, and together with a bit of Garlic, it's another good Vegetable dish that stands out from the more common, boring offerings.

Another good special dish posted on their wall is the Tsong Kao Yu Nan (Roasted Baby Taro with Green Onions).

The Baby Taro is extremely mild and gentle, lacking in the tropical pungency that normal Taro has, and tastes more like a lighter cousin to Potato than anything else.

Their Bai Yeh Jieh Hohng Shao Rou (Braised Pork with Bean Curd) turns out to be pretty average.

The actual Braising Sauce is fine - lightly sweet with a nice Soy Sauce tinge - but the actual Braised Pork Belly tastes about ~1 day old. It's not bad, but it lacks the fresh vibrancy of fresh-made Braised Pork at places like Yu Garden.

But the Bean Curd Knots are just fine, with a clean, fresh taste to them, and a great complement to the Braised Pork Belly.

After having the amazing Shanghai-style Egg Rolls at Yu Garden, I'm curious how Southern Mini Town's version turns out, so we place an order of their Shanghai Chuen Juan (Shanghai Egg Rolls).

If Yu Garden altered everything I thought Egg Rolls could be, then Southern Mini Town reminded me of everything I disliked about them in the first place. :( Southern's version turns out to be the typical, thick, slightly crunchy Egg Rolls with flat tasting Napa Cabbage and heavily salted Ground Pork. This is probably something I won't be ordering again.

One of the prettier and more interesting Vegetable dishes is their Hsueh Tsai Fen Pi (Preserved Vegetable with Bean Starch Sheet).

Long, wide, translucent Mung Bean Noodles are sauteed with their Preserved Potherb Mustard Greens. The Mung Bean Noodles are deliciously playful and perfectly pliable, soaking up a bit of the oil and Preserved Greens flavors. They are sadly, a bit too salty, each and every time we order it.

Unfortunately, not all specials posted on their wall are worth trying, especially their Hohng Shao Ti Jing (Braised Pork Tendon(!)).

The more common Tendon dishes in Chinese restaurants tend to be Beef Tendon, so I was extremely curious to see how Southern Mini Town's Pork Tendon would turn out. Sadly, it's ruined from the very first bite: The Pork Tendon tastes extremely old (with the unappetizing pungency of sitting in the refrigerator for ~3-4+ days). After trying to get over the funk, the actual texture of this Pork Tendon is like a chewy sponge. :( The dish is so off-putting that none of my guests could eat more than 1-2 bites.

Thankfully things righted themselves quickly with our next dish: Ching Tsao San Hu (Sauteed Finless Eel).

This obsidian colored dish may look unappetizing, but the Sauteed and Braised Freshwater Eel is absolutely delicious! :) Each bite gives way to a real unctuousness and complex layering of flavors. It's surprising and frustrating that more of Southern Mini Town's dishes can't achieve this level of goodness. (And the usual "dirt" taste associated with some freshwater aquatic life isn't found here; they know how to properly prepare the Freshwater Eel.) Definitely one of their best dishes on the menu.

I've ordered their version of the infamous "Pork Pump" numerous times, but it'd been a year since my last taste, so after having the outstanding, fresh and vibrant version at Yu Garden, I wanted to retry it: Nan Guo Tuh Suh Ti Pahng (Boiled Pork Trotter in Sauce Nanguo Style).

Southern's "Pork Pump" (a huge Pork Shank, slow braised) arrives and is impressively massive (like most Pork Pumps around the SGV). I take a bite and notice it's decently tender, but a bit underseasoned. My guests note that they got pieces that were too tough. I cut into another section of the Ti Pahng and find some very tender portions to let everyone try. It's much better. But as we make our way through a good portion of it, the lack of skill in the kitchen is apparent in executing this dish, and it reminds me of the 3 times I've ordered it in the past: It's just too uneven and lacks the brightness, even cooking and tenderness of Yu Garden's version.

We finish off this visit with a classic dish: Ji Tsai Rou Hsi Tsao Nian Gao (Chinese Leek and Pork Rice Cake).

The Rice Cake rounds taste like a cheap, store-bought version, and sadly, very poorly executed: It's chunky, dry and far more chewy than it should be. It's also extremely plain, and the Shepherd's Purse and Ground Pork do nothing to elevate this dish.

Service is a bit slow at times, but manageable. You just wave at one of the 2 servers to get what you need. Prices range from $1.95 - $20, with most dishes at about ~$7, very fairly priced. Their Lunch menu features 73(!) dishes ranging from $3.95 - $6.95.

At the end of the day, Southern Mini Town (Hsiao Nan Guo) represents a decent, little hole-in-the-wall eatery that delivers some very good dishes, many average dishes and some disappointing ones as well. If given the choice, I'd rather return to Yu Garden, but I'd be perfectly happy going back to Southern Mini Town for their Shredded Pork with Bean Curd and Yellow Chives and their Sauteed Finless Eel, amongst a few other good dishes. While they may have too many flaws to overlook, Southern Mini Town is one decent Shanghai restaurant I wish I had in my neighborhood (if I couldn't have Yu Garden :).

Rating: 6.9 (out of 10.0)

Southern Mini Town Restaurant (Hsiao Nan Guo)
833 W. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Tel: (626) 289-6578

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 11:00 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.


Anna A. said...

I grew up in a mostly Tiwainese community, but damn I miss those dried sword beans and mapo tofu!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Nice! :) If you end up trying this place or Yu Garden, let me know whatcha think. :)

stuffycheaks said...

oh no, pity about the pork shank. At least the fatty skin part looked good. Everything looks so delicious esp that buttery cod

Exile Kiss said...

Hi stuffycheaks,

It's not horrible, but it could be much better. Thanks.

Beef No Guy said...

Nice writeup! A NorCal free circulation food magazine mentions an article about shen jian bao in Shanghai, then goes on to talking about the best in California. For SoCal, the writer says Kang Kang Food Court in Alhambra is probably the best he's had (in terms of authenticity).

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Beef No Guy,

Thanks for the rec. :) I've heard of that food court before, but I've never gone. I'll keep it in mind next time I'm in the SGV. Thanks. :)

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