Shanghai cuisine — the youngest of China’s 10 primary regional styles and one of the least familiar to some Westerners — can seem a little odd to those used to Americanized Cantonese and Szechuan. Stinky Tofu, for example, earns its name. But as interpreted at Ding’s Garden, the sometimes unfamiliar, divergent flavors and textures blend into a comforting, crazy quilt for the senses.
Ding’s Garden, an offshoot of several Southern California-based restaurants, opened in May on the section of Jones Boulevard where Spring Mountain Road’s Chinatown has sprawled around the corner. The menu lists dozens of dishes; the best way to proceed is to choose several for the table and let everyone dig in as they arrive.
Stinky Tofu, one of the classic Shanghai street foods, would be a great way to start. To make it, tofu is fermented until it acquires an exceptionally firm texture and a flavor somewhat akin to blue cheese. At Ding’s it’s available steamed or fried ($5.75), and the large cubes of the latter were puffy nuggets of wonder that became less odoriferous as they cooled.
Another dish, Shanghai Sesame Fermented Rice Dumpling Soup ($8.50), would be a great way to end the meal, because its sweet nature, which comes from fermenting with wine, makes it ideal as a dessert. It was sort of gelatinous (which may not sound good until you realize eggdrop soup is, too), and the firm, perfectly round sesame-filled dumplings provided textural contrast and were islands of concentrated sweetness.
In between were a few other Shanghai classics, such as the gently savory Halogen Spiced Peanuts ($5.75), which had a slightly squishy texture akin to Southern boiled peanuts. (No, they don’t actually contain halogen of the chemical nature; the name stems from a quirk in the transliteration process.) Gluten Puffs in Shanghai Style ($6.75) would be ideal for the reluctant vegetarian, with their mild flavor and texture so similar to meat (think seitan).
A couple of other dishes lost something in translation: Pan-Fried Dumpling in Shanghai Style ($8.75) brought familiar bundles, the pork filling tender and thoroughly seasoned, but the bottoms had been browned until they were hard. Shanghai-style Salted Chicken ($6.75) wasn’t salty and was bony.
Other dishes were more familiar. The beef roll ($8.75), billed as a Shanghai dish, was a flaky crust enfolding thinly sliced beef, cucumber and cilantro, similar to dishes found in other cuisines; the difference here was that a broth was served with it. A green onion pancake ($6.75) was ultra-flaky and had an appealingly generous amount of scallions, and Szechuan DanDan Dry Noodles with Peanuts ($8.25) was pure comfort food thanks to its texture and abundance of umami.
Service was efficient, pleasant and mostly bilingual — even down to the tables set with chopsticks and forks. It’s a somewhat utilitarian strip-center spot that gets the job done without a whole lot of fuss. And all of that helps make the adventure even more satisfying.
If you go
■ Ding’s Garden, 3409 S. Jones Blvd.; 702-579-1111
■ The essence: A gratifying foray into the flavors and textures of Shanghai.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.
Ding’s Garden, 3409 S. Jones Blvd.; 702-579-1111
The essence: A gratifying foray into the flavors and textures of Shanghainese cuisine.