Central Square’s Shanghai Fresh, which replaced Picante Mexican Grill in late January, doesn’t need anyone’s help getting the word out. The husband and wife owners, Ling Hu and Ben Gu, have hit a Cambridge sweet spot. They serve authentic Shanghai cuisine (and dip a toe in the popular Sichuan style) in a cheery, hip little dining room with modern bamboo light fixtures and chalkboard-painted walls covered in white sketches of quaint Chinese agricultural scenes. And they serve beer and wine. All this means you might have to wait for a table, even on a rainy weeknight.
When you do get seated, start with a couple of cold appetizers. Wild veggie and bean curd ($6.25) arrives as a kind of vegetarian tartare — a little mound of finely chopped greens and tofu with a surprisingly deep, savory taste. The dish is typical of Shanghai cuisine; it’s flavorful but on the lighter side. It doesn’t conk you over the head with chiles or funk. It’s a gentler kind of cooking. The same can be said of sweet and sour baby ribs ($8.25). Don’t expect smoke or a sticky glaze here, but the chilled, tender ribs are chopped into bite-size morsels (careful, you’re eating around small bits of bone) and are steeped in tangy, sweet-tart flavor.
Moving on to hotter dishes — both in temperature and Scoville scale — Sichuan-style fried chicken ($10.95) is a heaping plate of pleasure with your cold Tsingtao. We don’t taste numbing Sichuan peppercorns (this is a Shanghai-style restaurant after all), but the boneless tenders are juicy and crisp and have just enough of a salty-spicy kick to keep you coming back for one more morsel.
Hu tells us even in China, Shanghai cuisine is evolving to be more spicy to keep up with current tastes.
We’ll never get sick of soup dumplings, known here as Shanghai pork buns (why do xiao long bao have a different American name at every Chinese restaurant?). They are smaller, and a bit less generous with the soup, than at some other spots in town, but they satisfy with rich, porky flavor and a lip-smacking, full-bodied broth. Garlic chicken wings ($8.75) are disconcertingly pale, but surprisingly crisp salted skin encases juicy brined meat beneath.
Unfamiliar with the dish, we weren’t sure what to expect of eight treasure rice cakes ($10.50). If you’ve ever had Korean rice cakes, that’s what you’ll get here. The little cylinders look like gnocchi, with the almost gelatinous, springy chew of mochi. They are a fun departure from the typical textures of Western cuisine. The cakes are glazed in an umami-filled, soy-based sauce, and stir-fried with finely diced sweet peppers and small shrimp. The dish has just a touch of heat.
This is the first restaurant with the two striking out on their own. Chef Gu trained at a Shanghai culinary school and worked in hotels throughout China. The pair also owned shares of Shanghai Gate in Allston before selling them last year, says Hu.
While the food at Shanghai Fresh is worth seeking out, the service is nothing to write home about. Once seated, you’re mostly ignored, except when dishes are thrown at the table — and for a place that’s usually got a line, it’s surprising how much effort it takes to wave someone down for the check. But you don’t really come to a spot like this for the service. We’ll be back to dig deeper into the subtle, satisfying flavors of Shanghai cuisine.
735 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-868-8877.
Prices Appetizers $6.25-$10.95, entrees $9.95-$20.95 (most under $15), desserts $4.25-$7.95.
Hours Sun-Mon 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Tue closed, Wed-Thu 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m. -11 p.m.
What to order Shanghai steamed pork buns, sweet and sour baby ribs, wild veggie and bean curd, Sichuan-style fried chicken
Catherine Smart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.