830 N Milpas N. St.
Hours: 11:30 a.m to 2:15 p.m Monday, Wednesday through Saturday; 4:30 to 9:15 p.m. Monday, Wednesday through Sunday; 4:30 to 9:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Closed Tuesday
Shanghaied to Shang Hai
In Shanghai there is the famous Buddhist temple-style vegetarian restaurant, Godly which opened in 1922 and is still going strong. Maybe it was the spawning ground for Santa Barbara’s Shang Hai restaurant which is run by a charming vegetarian, Yvette, who is from Shanghai. It’s Shang Hai’s vegetarian menu which is especially notable and brings exciting flavors and textures to vegetarian and vegan cuisine.
A few years ago Shang Hai suffered a car driving into the restaurant. It caused considerable damage which resulted with a complete remodel. Today the restaurant has sophisticated, clean decor, booths on one side and tables for larger groups on the other. Hot (or cold) tea is offered upon sitting down and the service is friendly and efficient. The vegetarian menu is very comprehensive. Lunch specials include soup, egg roll, fried wonton and steamed rice with a range of 22 main courses from Vegetable Chop Suey at $7.50 to Orange Flavor Soybean Chicken at $9.00. The latter was especially delicious with the sweet and fruity flavor of orange, the remarkable texture of faux chicken and some salty spiciness to keep the tastebuds thrilled. Served with white or brown rice this lunch would satisfy even the most adamant carnivore.
The Curry Tofu with soybean chicken ($9.00) brings together in harmony crisp broccoli, carrots, snow peas, watercress and mushrooms in a richly spicy curry sauce, soybean chicken (or can be ordered with soybean beef) and soft, luscious tofu.
The pièce de résistance for one that is in search of a savory option is the Soybean Beef With Black Bean Sauce ($9.00). It’s dark, rich and spicy. The flavors are exotic and well pronounced. The texture and flavor of the soybean beef is remarkable. We are told that Yvette tried many different suppliers of soybean beef after the original supplier stopped production a few years ago. It was a quest to find the right replacement but this one has exceeded even the original.
Also stimulating is the Kung Pao Soybean Chicken and Beef (order half and half) with extra peanuts ($9.00). Flavors abound with both types of soybean “meats” and the peanuts bring crunch to the spicy Kung Pao sauce which is a lively combination of red peppers which have been fried until dark red, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar.
At dinner one can order any of the above (count on a couple of dollars more) and the appetizers are tantalizing like the Fried Soybean Chicken (4 pieces for $7.00). This is almost tempura – style frying, crispy and light with a soya dipping sauce. The Cream Cheese Fried Wonton (6 for $7.00) is melt-in-your-mouth richness. There are dozens of options from the vegetarian menu including family dinners from $17 – $19 per person which include soup, appetizers, entree and fortune cookie.
My fortune cookie said “You will live a long and healthy life”. I believe, if I ate at Shang Hai regularly, that just might come true.
High Points: Creative and exciting vegetarian and vegan Chinese cuisine. Fast service, wallet-pleasing prices, and a comfortable environment
Low Points: This shopping center where the restaurant is located on upper Milpas has limited parking due in part to a busy laundromat. Time your visit in order to miss Santa Barbara High School’s lunch break because dozens of students line up to purchase Shang Hai’s meals to go.