I love finding a new restaurant, discovering that the food is good and spreading the word. I like helping the "little guys" get a boost whenever I can. It's like sharing a secret with everyone who reads the Indy.
This time around, it's no secret. By the time I got to Shangri-La, it was already well known by the folks at the north end of town. Located at the far north end of Union, at its intersection with Research Parkway, it's a long haul from my house but directly on my husband's path on his way home from work. I intend to take advantage of that fact, believe me.
You're thinking, "OK, another Chinese restaurant, big deal." It is a big deal because everything here stands out, starting with the dcor. No red lacquer, stylized dragons or tasseled lanterns darken the interior. It's very light and open. The walls, covered with asymmetrically tiered wood shelving, display graceful pieces of artwork and pottery. A Buddha with a baseball cap and glasses greets visitors just inside the front door, and the staff is exceptionally congenial and efficient.
And the food rocks. It just flat out rocks. The hot-and-sour soup is competently done, as is the egg drop soup. Neither will disappoint you. The steamed dumplings are good, although after writing about food for several years, I'm afraid I don't have a single original description left in me for steamed dumplings. Nicely textured, lean and juicy ground pork flavored with the merest hint of fresh ginger and green onion; but the real treat is the dipping sauce. It's a little spicy, a little sweet, not oily at all.
Shangri-La offers a create-your-own noodle soup option. For $7.75 you can have beef, chicken, pork or vegetable ($8.75 for shrimp or combination), with your choice of vermicelli rice noodles, egg noodles or chow fun noodles. The vegetable with rice noodles is a huge bowl full of al dente noodles swimming in a full-bodied vegetable broth, topped with broccoli, snow peas, carrots, mushrooms, bean sprouts and onion, all perfectly cooked to that elusive "crisp-tender" state. This is a bowl of soup to feel virtuous about, light but filling. I also sampled the Chinese Chicken Salad, which has a rich, dark dressing that you should use sparingly if you don't want a wasabi punch. It tingles on the back of your tongue, and it's a wonderful complement for the crispy chunks of chicken and noodles, snapping fresh lettuce, sliced cucumber and onions, and chunks of tomato.
Most entrees at Shangri-La can be ordered in the regular fashion, served with steamed rice. You also have the option of ordering a single combination dinner (from $7.75 for vegetable dishes to $9.95 for seafood dishes). You get your choice of soup, and egg roll and a chicken wing, egg fried rice and your entree. We sampled the Moo Goo Gai Pan this way and it was delicious, light and delicate with plentiful small pieces of juicy, white-meat chicken, snow peas and carrots. We also had the Eggplant with Garlic Sauce and Chicken with Garlic Sauce, both of which have a hint of spicy bite paired with just the right touch of sweetness in a medium brown sauce. The chicken was good, but the eggplant was phenomenal, tender and velvety.
Don't pass up the Chef's Specials on the menu, even though they aren't included in the Combination Dinners. The Sesame Beef ($9.95) was very lightly dipped in an almost transparent batter, the long, golden, tender strips sprinkled with crunchy sesame seeds and bathed in a tingly sweet sauce. This dish is marked as spicy, but like other spicy menu items, it really doesn't register very high on the hot scale. If you really like a lot of heat, you are liable to be disappointed. We asked for Twice Cooked Pork to be very hot, and while it was pleasantly spicy, no one broke a sweat.
The other Chef's Special that is truly special is the Mushroom Duck ($9.95). This is a glorious mountain of the juiciest sliced duck breast you can imagine, smothered with chunks and slices of a variety of mushrooms in a rich brown gravy. You'll need lots of rice with this dish, because you can't let a single drop of that sauce go to waste.
One of the nicest features about Shangri-La, besides the food, is the attentiveness of the staff. Water glasses are kept filled, and waiters frequently check with your table to make sure the service and the food is up to your expectations. The staff also graciously accommodates children, and if you order a Pu Pu Platter for the kids, your waiter will happily remove the Sterno burner from the middle of the serving dish. Shangri-La is a peaceful, relaxing and filling place to share a meal, and I can't wait to go back.