Most of us associate Chinese food with rice, but that’s because the Cantonese—rice eaters from South China—brought the cuisine to this country. In Shanghai, Beijing and points north, though, it’s too cold for rice growing, and wheat predominates in the form of buns and dumplings served steamed, boiled and fried. Those dishes came many generations later to our shores, but they’re here now, with a vengeance.
That brings us to 1900 Asian Cuisine, where glorious dumplings, pancakes and steamed buns headline a greatest-hits menu of Northern Chinese cooking. Perhaps you ate at the now-defunct Three Villages, upstairs inside the large Pacific Asian Plaza that also houses a 99 Ranch Market grocery store. Shanghai-born Jimmy Li moved it downstairs, changed the name and greatly expanded the menu.
1900, it must be said, is much nicer than its predecessor. A huge glass front faces Spring Mountain Road, and there’s lots of space in between tables fashioned from black lacquer, and cushy booths in a color scheme of mauve and black under glowing Chinese lanterns. Li is young, so the soundtrack is millennial-friendly. In other words, don’t expect to hear Chinese flutes and strings tinkling in the background, but hard rock instead.
The extensive picture menu’s first page lists cold dishes such as the sweetish, bony Wuxi smoked fish, but what you’ve really come here for is on the menu’s back. That’s where to find delicacies such as green-onion pancake, xiao loong bao (Chinese for “little basket dumplings”) and the lesser-known ji dong meat pie.
Perhaps you know xiao loong bao as juicy pork dumplings. They come nine to an order in a metal steamer, bursting with juice when cut open. Put them in that curved spoon and watch your shirtfront. The restaurant’s name is taken from the year the first xiao loong bao restaurant opened in Shanghai. These dumplings, I must add, even surpass the ones at the very good China Mama. Ditto the crisp, golden, multilayered green-onion pancake, glistening with oil and salt.
Mr. Li also does Shanghai-style pork buns with a meaty filling that he pan-fries to crispness on their bottoms, and the excellent green-onion pancake with beef, which is a dense roll-up, almost like a wrap. And just what is ji dong meat pie, you ask? Picture the pancakes with a thin layer of juicy pork between the layers, a Chinese quesadilla—if you substitute meat for that gooey melted cheese.
The rest of the menu is pretty eclectic. From Taiwan, there is a delicious hot pot made with braised chicken and basil. Chewy, thick wheat-based noodles come in soup, topped with beef chunks, or the Cantonese mishmash of chopped shrimp, tofu, chicken and vegetables known as Eight Treasure.
One star dish is red-chili oil black-bean whole fish, in this case sea bass, and note that on the menu, the dish is marked with three chili symbols, meaning that it’s too hot for most of us to handle. And if you want to go Bizarre Foods America on your friends, order the shredded pork stomach with red chili sauce—another incendiary combo—or the spicy frog legs. Fresh fruit juices, such as watermelon and peach, can cool you off.
For dessert, rice balls in red-bean soup might be too Chinese for most Western palates, but if you wanted to play it safe, you’d be picking up kung pao chicken around the corner.
1900 Asian Cuisine
5115 Spring Mountain Rd., 998-8989. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun-Thu, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri-Sat. Dinner for two, $29-$55.