Chinese dining in the Midwest isn’t as simple as it used to be.
Made-to-order, sit-down and/or takeout dining was common years ago in Fargo. Think Phil Wong Chinese Food downtown, long gone now, and the Great Wall on South University Drive where they still make what you order in a tiny kitchen occupied almost entirely by big woks and wildly busy cooks while you wait for it. Never exotic, but functional and fresh.
Then came the buffet with their steam tables, cornstarch and deep-fat frying. They were candy bars at best, if you got there when the food was just poured out.
Today, the buffet has improved to the point where the best reasons to go to an off-the-menu Chinese restaurant is to find items that don’t do well on a steam table, and to do it at a price that beats the all-you-can-eat margin for error.
Shang Hai doesn’t quite offer the variety and unique offerings that satisfy the first criteria, but they certainly deliver on value.
One place where the menu travels a little bit from the buffet track is in the Pan Fried Noodles ($8.95). Substantial enough to differentiate themselves from basic repurposed pasta, they hold their shape and take the heavy sauce well. Beef portions are generous and vegetables are generally fresh.
While the Seafood Delight ($12.95) manages the vegetables well, the varied temperature across the plate and the uneven thickness of the sauce gives the impression that the dish was assembled rather than prepared. And the imitation crab seems out of place for a dish that is expected to highlight seafood and, in the case of the scallops and shrimp, didn’t do so altogether badly.
But the thickening puts it back in the category of something that would do as well on a steam table as it would on a plate or perhaps better.
The bento boxes are fun and a throwback to the combo plates of days gone by. A reasonable sample of traditional Americanized Chinese food.
The Chicken Lo Mein Bento Box, again, sported the same thickened sauce and offered some sweet-and-sour chicken on the side to fill out the entree portion of the box next to wontons and rice. But again, one feels that one could put it together on one’s plate just as well.
What Shang Hai does well is put a reasonable meal on the table at a very reasonable price. And the $6.95 lunch buffet is the best value in town.
The strip mall interior is basic and the service is good. But there’s not much for a server to contribute given that the menu would be familiar to anyone who has spent any time at all in American Chinese restaurants. If you are looking for localized cuisines or dishes that count on preparations other than thickened stir-fry, the menu can’t offer much outside of a very basic soup selection.
All in all, Shang Hai is worth the visit for a predictable, value-priced meal and a quiet, unrushed atmosphere.
But changes in the Asian dining scene in Fargo and Moorhead means it has a great deal of competition.
Address: 3051 25th St. S., Fargo
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Ratings (out of 4 stars)
Food: 1 1/2 stars
Service: 2 stars
Ambiance: 1 1/2 stars
Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at email@example.com.