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Toasting Lunar New Year

By all means, go to a personal favorite spot and have all your personal favorite dishes. Then consider, as well, one of the Garden State’s destinations and keep ringing in the Year of the Dragon.

Shanghai Bun’s beef sandwich has fascinated me for almost 20 years. I first ate it in concert with soup dumplings at the most humble of humble storefronts along Route 34 in Matawan, having spotted Chinese characters on the sign identifying this mini strip mall as Matawan Mall and deciding this necessitated a pit stop. It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

There were two menus at the time at Shanghai Bun, one your basic American-Chinese bill of fare, and a second that held many magic words, including “steamed pork buns,” which I’d hoped were soup dumplings and learned from a somewhat stern-faced woman behind the ordering counter indeed were soup dumplings.

“You must eat them here,” she said to me. “They cannot be taken out.”

I would not dream of taking soup dumplings more than 10 feet from their cooking source. Which would not be an issue at this place people tend to call a “hole in the wall” and I soon called my favorite spot for eating very good Chinese street foods.

After finishing the fine soup dumplings, I looked for more on the magic-words menu and saw an item simply labeled “beef sandwiches.” Given that I’d clearly appreciated the soup dumplings – which, to that point, I’d had to go to Chinatowns in New York City and Philly to eat – the woman at the counter agreed to have made for me the beef sandwiches and even suggested a side salad of cucumbers tossed in a spicy, chile-inflected dressing. (You get that I adore/respect/revere this woman who was the ideal arbiter of Shanghai Bun’s best, right?)

Anyway, this – dumplings, beef sandwich, cuke salad – is what I came to think of as a pitch-perfect Combo Meal.

The dumplings and cuke salad were satisfying, for sure, but they weren’t this utterly mystifying original edible that the beef sandwich was. I mean, an old friend from Houston, a fellow food critic, actually visited in part to experience this beef sandwich. Houston is a wondrous city for all things food and its Asian communities offer its residents a darn near unparalleled world of experiences. Yet this also-unparalleled food critic had not seen the beef sandwich in her city of Asian plenty.

I’d thought it a shaobing spin, a flatter type of unleavened northern Chinese bread that’s often topped with a mass of sesame seeds and can be stuffed or eaten as is. At Shanghai Bun, the dish came in twosies, a pair of sandwiches on sesame-topped rough rounds of firm, tight-crumbed breads each layered with a thin slice of fat-veined beef, a fan (or a heap or a splay) of skinny-sliced allium that seemed a cross between a leek and a scallion, a sauce at once plummy and hoisin-esque and, always, a flourish of fresh cilantro leaves. Two sandwiches, back in the aughts, cost at first $4.50, maybe $5; I never understood why anyone would spring for fast food when this meaty sandwich was one of the Top 10 tastiest foods you could eat in New Jersey and an incomparable bargain.

For years, I ate regularly at Shanghai Bun, and although I’d expand my scope to other dishes on the real-deal menu, I always ordered soup dumplings, beef sandwiches and a spicy-sauced cuke salad. And so I did again earlier this week, after not setting foot in Shanghai Bun for a good five years. No deliberate reason; I’ve just been busy traveling our Garden State. But for the occasion of Chinese Lunar New Year, which this year rings in on February 10, I wanted to reconsider my Combo Meal.

Soup dumplings: OK, maybe a little heavier and doughier than I recall, but the inner-sanctum broth remains vital and the accompanying soy-ginger sauce as ticklishly delightful as ever.

Cuke salad: Still ready to roll, almost beating me from order counter to table, perky with heat, though I did give it an extra dab of chile sauce from the little pot on the table.

Beef sandwich: Better than ever. Better than ever. Now, I never thought twice about the spareness of the beef quotient on the sandwich, but this past Monday, in the middle of the afternoon, the twosies each came with two more tender, less-veined slices of beef, slightly more generously sloshed with that plummy-hoisin-esque sauce and an underlay of wispy batons of scallion. Oh, there were spots of fat pocking the beef, but far fewer lines of tougher tendons. The bread, made from scratch at Shanghai Bun, is as dense as ever, with a mere suspicion of sweetness, a coy edginess to its attitude that says, I’m cocooning beef now, but I could bring cheese or vegetables or pork or a slab of butter into my bosom.

Terrific, terrific, terrific. I was wishing – a little bit wishing – that the cilantro hadn’t gotten quite as sauce-logged as it did; I’ve always loved it as a kind of palate-refresher while eating the beef sandwich. But it remains among my all-time favorites foods to eat. A must on my own Lunar New Year dine card.

Now, where else should you check in for the holiday? Read on, consider and dine out with lots of good luck and cheer. BTW: Shanghai Bun is at 852 Route 34 in Matawan; 732-765-8388. Website: Call it a hole in the wall and you’d better watch your back, ‘cause a well-fed woman with a mean right jab will be out to get you.

Hong Kong street foods are at the heart of this modest storefront in Edison where much time is taken early in the day to make by hand shrimp wontons, dumplings and a winsome tomato sauce that can arrive at your table soon after you do. 1803 Route 27, Edison. 732-202-8225. Website:

The port city of Qingdao, in Shandong Province, sits on the Yellow Sea, just about midway between Shanghai and Beijing in China. It’s famous for its seafood and that’s the specialty at a culinary travelogue in Fairfield guided by a family’s intimate knowledge of its many splendors. 14 Route 46, Fairfield. 973-244-1717. Website:

What they serve, and how they serve their diners, is a flip on the old Happy Family combo common on the Chinese takeout orders of yore. Here and now at this singular spot in Parsippany, it’s about technical skills and understanding how purity works in flavor partnerships, about taking the temperature of everyone who walks in and knowing what’s needed to make them feel welcome and well-fed. 333 Route 46 East, Parsippany. 973-287-7399. Website:

Maybe “Chinese Sauerkraut Fish” doesn’t sound like a dish you’d put on your must-try list. But you should. Soon. And then eat it for the rest of your life. It’s the specialty at this storefront in Edison and, if it puzzles at first, that state of mind will switch to all-encompassing exhilaration once you experience the dish that does not contain sauerkraut as we in America know it, but a variety of pickled mustards, fish fillets that possess a quality of slurpability that you may not have realized is possible, let alone desired, and accents that include broth-piercing red chilies and branches of whole Szechuan peppercorns. 875 Route 1 South, Edison. 732-318-6455. Website:

Not your grandma or grandpa’s local Chinese joint, this Hunan specialist in Bridgewater is proudly authentic. There are dishes that hit the heights, and dishes that fall short, but there’s nothing that sidesteps sincerity. Indeed, it’s the darling of the culinary cognoscente, who love it for its authentic dishes – largely Hunan, with a scattering of Canton and Szechuan. In this old-school setting you will find pig ear and ox tendon, fish head and conch, frog and mutton, beef throat and pork bellies, skin and intestines and a wide world of vegetables that, frankly, could star at their own restaurant. 41 Old York Road, Bridgewater. 908-429-8886. Website:

Perfect for Lunar New Year celebrations is this swell spot in Somerville with special-order 10-course menus that are served forth in banquet fashion. You will have a procession of splendid Cantonese specialties delivered to your round table and set upon a circular sheet of glass that acts as a lazy Susan so it can be spun and twirled to serve everyone around its circumference. Jim, who runs the show, will supervise and see that your soup is ladled, tableside, from one large bowl into smaller soup bowls; that your service team details each of the five appetizers on the opening platter; and that your whole fish is filleted, even as he notes that its crackling skin, which looks like a fringed doily, is worth a bite. 216 West Main St., Somerville. 908-526-8888. Website:


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