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Shanghai flavors come to Rego Park rebirth

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Shanghai is located in the temperate basin of the Yangtse River, dotted by rivers and lakes and abundant in local produce. Shanghai food features vegetable and seafood dishes with stew-in-brown-soy-bean and stir-fry-in-vegetable-oil as the main cooking methods. The use of sugar is integral to Shanghai cuisine and, especially when used in combination with soy sauce, effuses foods and sauces with a taste that is not so much sweet but savory. A typical Shanghai household will consume sugar at the same rate as soy sauce, even excluding pastry baking. Non-natives tend to have difficulty identifying this usage of sugar and are often surprised when told of the "secret ingredient."

Although Howard Zhou's bills itself as a "Shanghai Style" Chinese restaurant, the menu embraces popular dishes from many regions of China. During our visits to Howard Zhou's, we attempted to hone in on Shanghai dishes. Rest assured that if you are dining with someone who prefers to stick with familiar dishes, they will find most of their favorites here. Not all of the famous dishes of Shanghai can be found here. Notably absent is "Stinky Tofu." Some diners would consider that a blessing, although once you get over the odor, it's a delicious dish.

It is mandatory, that whatever else is ordered, a meal at a Shanghai restaurant begins with Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Bun). These delicate morsels are tiny dumplings filled with meat and broth. At Howard Zhou's they are simply described on the menu as "Steamed Tiny Buns" and are expertly prepared. Lift them from the steamer with the tongs provided, dip them in the accompanying sauce, and place them on your spoon. Then take a tiny bite, suck out the broth and enjoy the rest.

Once having consumed those delicious little buns, you are faced with a multitude of choices. We tried fish with lotus seeds soup. A family-sized bowl arrived loaded with chunks of very fresh white-fleshed fish in a thickened broth not all that dissimilar to egg drop soup. The lotus seeds, although I'm not sure I'd know one if I saw one, were not apparent. This soup was heavily laced with fresh coriander (cilantro), reminiscent of many Latino soups.

We tried several main dishes. Notable among them was yellow fish with pine nut. The freshness of the fish was evident, probably having been circling the restaurant's tank not long before. It was crisply battered and fried, and then slathered with a mildly sweet and sour sauce studded with pine nuts. Delicious, although a little pesky to conquer with chopsticks.

Salted pepper shrimp was another winner. The shrimp are dredged in flour and cornstarch, then egg white, and finally salt and pepper, then fried. The result was crispy piquant shrimp served on a bed of slivered scallions. Mmm-mmm.

We also enjoyed shredded pork with bean curd skin and salt cabbages. Cabbage is the predominant ingredient in this stir-fried dish, generously laced with the pork and bean curd skin. The cabbage had a pleasantly bitter flavor, offset by the sweetness of the pork and sauce. The bean curd added mainly to the variety of textures.

In pork balls with brown sauce the flavors of star anise and five-spice powder can be detected. The pork balls are large, soft meatballs, served on a bed of Shanghai bok choi (the short fat kind). Chinese comfort food.

We were less pleased by the braised noodles Shanghai style, and Chinese squash with dried bean curd. An abundant variety of shrimp and meats were combined with the noodles, but we found the sauce bland and uninteresting. We also found the veined shrimp off-putting. The squash and dried bean curd dish consisted of flaccid puffs of fried dried bean curd and zucchini (well maybe it was zucchini, but they said Chinese squash) in a flavorless sauce.

The Bottom Line

Howard Zhou's is a moderately priced sit-down neighborhood Chinese restaurant with talent in the kitchen. It's an unpretentious place for a casual Chinese feed with an emphasis on the dishes of Shanghai. There are plenty of vegetarian options for non-carnivores in your party.

Howard Zhou's

94-03B 63rd Dr.

Rego Park

718-896-7159

Cuisine: Chinese-Shanghai style and other.

Setting: Small unpretentious neighborhood Chinese

Service: Efficient

Hours: Seven days L and D

Reservations: Not necessary

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Takeout: Yes

Credit cards: Yes

Noise level: Acceptable

Handicap accessible: Yes

Recommended Dishes:

Steamed Tiny Buns (a must!)...$3.95

Crab meat & Pork Buns...$5.95

Fish Soup with Lotus Seeds...$4.95

Yellow Fish with Pine Nut...$12.95

Salted Pepper Shrimp...$9.50

Pork Balls With Brown Sauce...$8.50

Shredded Pork with Bean Curd Skin and Salt Cabbage...$4.25/$7.25 (sm/lg)

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