Review: Shanghai Mama’s

I can’t claim that this is a restaurant I’ve never tried before; indeed it’s one of my old favorites. I’ve been going here since it opened (in fact, I remember when it was my favorite Big Sky Bread location and I went there once a week– remember them?), and once upon a time, I got engaged there. Thankfully, Shanghai Mama’s outlasted my marriage and has become something of a institution in the ever-growing downtown nightlife.

Let’s start out with the little things. First, I adore my usual waitress, Mandy, whom I initially met at King Wok. She remembered (when Terry and I didn’t) where we had sat previously, and it’s been a food-based friendship ever since. She’s sweet, adorable, and always gives great recommendations, so if you catch her and she recommends something– take her word on it!

Second, let’s talk about the hours: they’re open until 3 AM. I know, around here the classic “after drinking” food is White Castles (or, if you’re in Newport or Covington, Waffle House), but I occasionally want something not quite so heavy (or stomach-upsetting). It’s also great for after-event dinners– post-theater, post-hockey, whatever. I don’t know of many places downtown that have kitchens open past 11 (Via Vite has a late-night menu– anyone else?), so for a night owl like me, it’s a godsend.

Now we get to the food. Oh, the food. Shanghai Mama’s isn’t your traditional Americanized Chinese food– you know, order #15 with fried rice and an egg roll. Instead, it’s a fusion of East and West wrapped up in a kitschy, 1930s-Shanghai style package. Their menu uses very fresh ingredients and some interesting preparations for an Asian meal that is far superior to your standard takeout.

You can make a meal of their appetizers– my favorites being the Shrimp Tempura (oft-voted Best Damn Dish at Taste of Cincinnati), with a flaky tempura batter and their sweet-and-sour Big Red sauce; Crabmeat Cannoli (according to Michael, another waiter there, “chicks dig the cheese”, and he’s right), which are an innovative version of crab rangoon that actually contains crab. They also have surprisingly good chicken wings, and their Shanghai Flatbread, covered in spicy-sweet chicken, is a meal in itself.

What Shanghai Mama’s is known for, however, are their noodles. The varieties! Ho fun, lo mein, rice noodles, and don’t forget the homemade Shanghai-style noodles, which during dinner service, are made in front of you in a display that can only be described as acrobatic. You can get them with chicken, beef, duck or vegetables in a variety of sauces– I’m partial to the shrimp tempura bowl, myself.

As far as noodle-free dishes, they have plenty of good choices there, too. They have a fantastic Mu Shu pork that is delicious, not greasy, and served with the best hoisin sauce I’ve ever had. A current special (which may go permanent, who knows?) is a perfectly crispy peking duck wrap, served with hoisin, pancakes, carrots, scallions and cucumber that you assemble yourself. Absolutely fantastic! When I’m not indulging, Shanghai Salad with chicken and peanut dressing is my usual choice.

My only complaint involves the furnishings: the tables are crowded close together (which, after 11 PM, can make for some great people-watching and overheard conversations) and are a bit low, which makes it a little uncomfortable for private conversations (not a huge deal to me) taller people (which I am not) and leg crossers (which I am).

Shanghai Mama’s is one of my favorite downtown restaurants– it’s convenient to the Aronoff Center, the Taft Theater and Fountain Square, near the corner of 6th and Main.

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