Now, this is my kind of Chinese restaurant. I've always been a little wary of Chinese food. (I've led a sheltered life on the west side of town.) Before I went away to college, my experience with Chinese food was at the mall food court where the fare is served on a paper plate on a red plastic tray, and everything tastes suspiciously similar. Fortunately, I've expanded my horizons since then, but I was still relieved to discover that Mama's is a fun dining experience, complete with attentive service, bar, delicious food and plenty of variety on the menu.
The restaurateurs completely transformed the site that formerly housed a Big Sky Bread Company, turning it into an upscale but casual dining room and bar. Our server pointed out that Barbara Chin selected all the furnishings from Hong Kong, including beautiful vintage advertising posters displayed around the room.
The menu is tucked inside The Shanghai Times, a tongue-in-cheek tabloid set in "Shanghai in Mama's day," when the city swarmed with foreigners and gangsters openly ruled. And, although the tabloid states that the proprietors have taken some liberties with the menu and décor, they hope to bring that same touch of Shanghai to your dining experience. "Questioning types" are told, in the words of Mama, to "Shut up and eat your noodles!"
On the night we visited, my friend and I settled in for one of the long, lingering dinners we use to catch up every couple of months. Once we convinced the server that we intended to stay (and eat and drink), she allowed us to peruse the menu at a leisurely pace while we sipped our wine and Sapporo. Plan to take some time to review the choices. Although the menu has only five major sections (starters, cold picks, noodle soups, rice bowl, and noodles and rice choices), each set of choices is extensive
Starters consist of many traditional favorites, such as egg roll ($2) or spring rolls ($2.95 for two), and fried wontons ($5.95 for six). Our server recommended one of the crabmeat choices, such as the crabmeat cannoli ($4.95 for three), crabmeat, cream cheese and herb seasonings and cannoli shells. We opted instead for her other recommendation, Mama's Sugar Cane ($5.95 for two). The dish was two petite nuggets of shrimp and crabmeat, rolled up, breaded and fried, and skewered with a sugar cane. Our server warned us in advance not to eat the sugar cane, so I wondered what was the point? Other than presentation, I'm not sure it added to the flavor of the dish. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our tiny shares.
We also selected one of Mama's Shanghai Flatbreads as a starter. These are scallion pancakes served with a variety of toppings and dipping sauces. We chose the basic flatbread ($3.50), which was tasty, but would have been better with one of Mama's toppings. Next time, we'll get it Zen-style ($6.95), topped with roasted eggplant and peppers, and a garlic and teriyaki glaze.
Mama's salad selections (Cold Picks) are endless. Although we didn't try one on this visit, the description of the Shanghai Chicken Salad ($6.95) caught my attention: spring mix, grilled chicken, cucumber, Asian basil, crispy noodles and Shanghai spices. Mama's Cold Noodle ($3.95) would have been another good starter: homemade noodles, Asian sprouts, scallions, roasted sesame seed, herb ginger soy and Szechuan peppercorn oil, stacked and ready to be mixed.
We watched several big bowls being served to nearby diners and determined these were selections from the Rice Bowl section. These are monster-sized white bowls brimming with ingredients, like Shanghai Cashew Chicken ($7.95), and Orange Glazed Duckling ($9.95). My guest asked our server about the Rice Bowl version of Shrimp Tempura Sweet & Sour ($9.95), hailed on the menu as the winner of "Best Damn Dish" from this year's Taste of Cincinnati. She actually scrunched her nose at it, noting that this dish was simply four large pieces of shrimp tempura atop a bowl of rice.
She instead directed my friend to one of Mama's Big Bowl Noodle Soup selections of Shrimp Tempura ($9.95), a noodle version, topped with beautiful, fresh vegetables in a delicate herb broth. My friend thought the dish was beautiful and the vegetables were extremely fresh, but she found it blander than she had sought.
I chose my chicken and vegetable combination Paad Thai ($8.50) from the Noodles and Rice section. I loved the sticky noodles and grilled chicken (but missed the peanuts), and had plenty to bring home. Other noodle and rice choices include Shanghai style (Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, scallions, carrots, bean sprouts, and mushroom soy) and Ho Fun style (bean sprouts, scallions, thick homemade noodles and garlic soy.) Diners select grilled chicken, pork, beef, shrimp or vegetarian to complete the dish.
Lunchtime offers a condensed and modified menu with reasonably priced selections, ranging from Fried rice ($4.25) to Shanghai Cashew Chicken ($5.95) to Shrimp Tempura Noodle Soup ($8.95).
Bring your cash: The proprietors thoughtfully note on a sign on the door that they are not yet credit card equipped. Oh, and consider dinner after the show or an evening at a Main Street club: Shanghai Mama's keeps the kitchen open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturdays.
Go: 216 E. Sixth St. Downtown
Hours: Lunch: MondayFriday 11 a.m.3 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday 39:30 p.m., FridaySaturday 3 p.m.3 a.m.
Payment: Cash only for the time being
Red Meat Alternatives: Many tofu and vegetarian dishes, shrimp tempura, and more.
Other: Carry-out available for lunch and dinner. Late-night dining -- until 3 a.m. -- on weekends.