It's not off the beaten path, exactly, yet it isn't a place one would just stumble upon. Chef Zhao Kitchen is tucked into Palo Alto's Edgewood Plaza on West Bayshore Road, just off Embarcadero Road and Hwy. 101.
There is an unrelated Chef Zhao Bistro in Mountain View that serves Szechuan-style cuisine, while Chef Zhao Kitchen specializes in Shanghainese cuisine. Owner Jun Zhao and wife Hong Xia, who also own Shanghai Garden in Cupertino, opened Chef Zhao Kitchen last May. Their Shanghainese food is delicious and well worth seeking out.
The restaurant is divided into a sit-down section in front, with seating for 46, and three small private dining rooms. For those on the go, the back of the restaurant offers a variety of steam table eats to create your own to-go boxes.
The dining room menu is lengthy, and the pages were tattered. It wasn't an encouraging start, but everything after that was four-star.
Shanghainese cuisine, also known as Hu cuisine, is the youngest of China's 10 defined regional cuisines, though it is centuries old. Influenced by a half dozen neighboring provinces, Shanghai's culinary history was also inspired by its strategic position at the mouth of the Yangtze River. Sugar, soy sauce, wine, rice wine and rice vinegar are used more than in any other regional cuisine.
During our first foray into Chef Zhao Kitchen, we were overwhelmed by the choices and had no idea of portion size or what combinations went well together. No fear, an attentive waitress guided us and assured us that whatever we ordered would be fresh and made to order, including the noodles, which are house-made.
The wait wasn't long. The parade of food started with steamed xiao long bao ($7.95), a signature dim sum dish of Shanghai. The half dozen thin, soup-filled pork dumplings exploded in the mouth with a warm, soothing liquid that teased the taste buds.
The spicy flounder fillet ($14.95) -- served in a small pot filled with the reds, greens and oranges of Napa cabbage, potent Sichuan peppers, scallions and hot chili oil -- made a colorful mosaic of flavors and aromas. I mistakenly chewed a blazing hot Sichuan pepper and frantically waved for more water. Happily, after a minute of intense discomfort, my taste buds were fully restored.
My favorite dish was the wok-cooked eggplant ($10.95) with sliced jalapenos and green bell peppers in a syrupy soy sauce glaze. The jalapenos tasted like candy after that Sichuan pepper. The soy glaze glistened with the parquet of purple and green ingredients and the flavors were slightly sweet, not quite caramelized, yet meaty and earthy.
The tan tan noodles ($8.95) were house-made, pale, but not translucent and slippery to corral with one serving fork. The noodles cradled ground pork, baby bok choy and a peanut-butter chili sauce. The ingredients were nested -- meat over vegetables over noodles -- so diners could take more or less of any ingredient. The peanut-butter chili sauce had just enough zing to energize the dish without making it too fiery.
The thick, wok-fried salt-and-pepper calamari ($11.95) with sliced onion and jalapeno was light, airy and tasted like squid, not saturated oil. No sauce is necessary, although the restaurant serves a light, sweet rice vinegar sauce on the side.
The pork-filled potstickers ($8.95) were the perfect pan-fried dumpling with golden brown, crisp-fried bottoms and skins that were springy and chewy but not doughy. The potstickers were more elongated than crescent-shaped -- less plump, but just as enticing. In Shanghai, potstickers are street food, often eaten for breakfast. I could do that.
Mongolian beef slices ($13.95) were intertwined with onions, scallions, dried red chilies and a hot black sauce, somewhat similar to a hoisin sauce. The beef was fork tender with clean, lean flavors. The onion added a sweet crunch, the scallions gave color and the black sauce was just enough to bind the ingredients without upstaging the beef.
Thick stir-fried noodles ($9.25) were woven with spinach, chunks of Napa cabbage and shredded pork and bound with a brown sauce. The noodles were fat and dense (twice as thick as Italian bucatini) and easier to handle than the tan tan noodles. They were fresh, malleable and delicious.
Chef Zhao Kitchen is not undiscovered; the place is usually packed, so go early. Now that I've figured out how to get to get there, I will be going back. It's easy, once you've done it.
Chef Zhao Kitchen
2180 Bayshore Road #120, Palo Alto
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: shopping center lot
Alcohol: beer and wine
Happy hour: no
Outdoor dining: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: good