When asked to name the one Capital Region restaurant that I never get tired of, the answer is easy: Ala Shanghai in Latham.
The xiao long bao (soup dumplings) get the most acclaim at Ala Shanghai, and deservedly so. I wouldn't dare suggest that one not order the soup dumplings during a visit there. But I'd like to make a couple of additional suggestions from Ala Shanghai's extensive 12-page menu.
Here I'll focus on two other exceptional dishes, both of which feature a leafy green known as capsella: Wontons in Spicy Flavor and Rice Cake with Pork and Capsella.
Wontons in Spicy Flavor
It took me a few visits to Ala Shanghai before I was seduced enough by the description of the wontons in "spicy flavor" and said, "Why not get two different kinds of dumplings in one meal?" You might be like me and always want to start a meal here with the soup dumplings, but that doesn't mean you should then ignore these steamed wontons that are served in a simple, yet complex broth.
Featured on the Dim Sum section of the menu, an order of 10 wontons in spicy flavor is only $6. These dumplings are stuffed with capsella and bits of pork. Capsella, also known as shepherd's purse, is in the mustard family, but it is also know as a weed.
Don't let this fact deter you. Shanghai is one of the few places around the world where capsella is used in cooking; the fact that Ala Shanghai effectively incorporates it into their dishes shows their dedication to both tradition and taste. In the wontons, the capsella is cut into small pieces and packed together tightly with the pork. Its slightly bitter flavor plays nicely off of the rich sauce in which the wontons are swimming.
That sauce is a combination of chili oil, soy sauce, and sesame paste made from toasted white sesame seeds. The heat is fairly mild; you might notice it on the back end of every taste, but it's not overpowering. The sesame flavor works harmoniously with the chili oil; texturally they combine for a thin and smooth sauce, but all that roasted sesame flavor from the paste is prominent and only enhanced by the drizzle of sesame seeds atop the dish. The slivers of cucumber and tiny rings of scallions that also top the dish add a nice bit of crunch.
Rice Cake with Pork and Capsella
Rice cakes are fairly ubiquitous throughout Asian cuisine; if you've had Korean dukbokki, for instance, you'll recognize them, only in a different shape than in this dish at Ala Shanghai.
Here the rice cakes are fairly thin ovals that tend to cling to one another. There is nothing noteworthy about the taste of rice cakes, though I do love their pleasantly chewy texture. They are coated by many finely-chopped pieces of capsella, thinly-sliced strands of pork, and narrow slices of bamboo. The pork and capsella once again work well together, and the bamboo is appreciated for its texture, but this dish becomes truly special with one important addition: Ala Shanghai's hot sauce.
I highly recommend asking your server for a bowl of this hot sauce. It adds not only a moderate amount of heat, but also a rich saltiness from the combination of fermented black beans and chilies in oil. This rice cake dish is tucked away in the Lo Mein and Fried Rice portion of the menu (way back on page 11) for $10 and serves as a unique alternative for someone who might ordinarily have a rice or noodle dish.
The fact that capsella is an ingredient in both of these dishes makes, in some ways, for a fun and unique focus to this article. Yet it can't be said, in all honesty, that capsella is the star of either of these dishes. Then again, there's pork in both dishes, and it's more of a role player than even the capsella.
Ala Shanghai has a way of using ingredients in surprising and delicious ways across their extensive menu. These two dishes are proof of that. But they're also evidence of the many delights that await in all corners of this menu.
Jeff Janssens writes about food and beer at The Masticating Monkey.
468 Troy Schenectady Road
Latham, NY 12110
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.