I say this defensively because I've got several friends who are really into the Atkins diet: that insanely trendy weight-loss philosophy that forbids any sugars and most carbohydrates, but encourages liberal consumption of meats, fats, seafood, and cheeses.
Eating out with Atkins fanatics is a pain in the ass. There is a freakish obsession with avoiding the slightest hint of "carbs"; pizza and beer are out of the question, and nobody wants to go out for Italian anymore. Apparently pasta, bread, and rice are the real axis of evil.
After a recent trip to New York, where it seemed like all of my impossibly skinny girlfriends—all wearing impossibly low-rise jeans with impossibly pointy shoes—were preaching the Atkins gospel, I came back feeling traumatized and extremely grateful for my easygoin', carb-munchin' Seattleite friends (who wear unintimidating pants and comfortable shoes). I got a big group together, and we went straight to the International District's Shanghai Garden.
What I love most about this place is that it busts apart the common stereotypes of Chinese food—that it's high-fat, cholesterol- and MSG-riddled, and bad for your health. Sure, there will always be greasy Chinese takeout joints, and we are talking about a cuisine that traditionally relies a lot on animal products—but Shanghai Garden's chef-owner Hua-Te Su has been challenging this rep at his family-run restaurant since the early '90s (there are also locations in Issaquah and Bellevue*) with his classic Shanghai versions of light, clear soups, seafood specials, wok-seared vegetable combos, and a "high nutrition" selection of brown rice entrées and hand-shaved noodles.
If the hand-shaved noodles won't convert Atkinsites, nothing will. These thick, uneven slivers of soft, fresh noodles are featured in noodle soups ($6.50–$7.50 [Eds: Sorry, Seattle, that was back in 2003; it's $7.50 to $8.50 for noodle soup in 2016. We'll update prices for other items below]) including the unmissable braised beef noodle soup, a heartier variation on pho, and the savory pork-and-pickled-cabbage noodle soup. The fresh noodles also appear in sautéed chow mein dishes with various vegetables, meats, and seafood ($6.50–$8.95 back in 2003; $7.50–$10.95 today). The gorgeous green version is reminiscent of Italian spinach pasta, but infused with Barleygreen, a powder extract of barleygrass juice. In our Barleygreen chow mein with chicken ($7.95 back in 2003; $9.95 today), the pillowy noodles soaked up the dish's rich gravy and picked up all flavors: subtly seasoned chicken, light touches of soy, and fragrant onions.
Other meat dishes exhibit the same lovely restraint—they're not the salty, brown interpretations found at so many Chinese restaurants. Sesame chicken ($9.95 back in 2003; $11.50 today) is as red and glossy as you expect, but without the sticky-syrup texture. Beef with cranberry sauce ($10.95 back in 2003; $12.95 today) is an unexpected treat: slices of supple flank mixed with a cranberry reduction sauce, gentle with a softly tart finish. Braised pork spareribs with green onion ($9.50 back in 2003; $10.50 today) are tender and simply prepared, the meat pounded flat and simmering in a bath of intense, deeply golden sauce with mellow hints of ginger and garlic.
Delicious bean curd sheets with sautéed sugar pea vines and earthy Chinese mushrooms ($12.95 back in 2003; $15.95 today) show off Shanghai Garden's devotion to authentic preparations: bright, verdant pea vines—tasting cleaner than other leafy greens, with a silky texture—are quickly sautéed and delicious with plain steamed rice. Various pea-vine dishes are offered with vegetable specialties like bamboo fungus, crisp snow peas, spicy Szechuan eggplant, and bitter mustard greens.
The fish selection changes according to season; we were lucky to get excellent lingcod ($16.95 for a huge portion back in 2003; not on the online menu today) steamed with soy, garlic, ginger, and a bit of rice vinegar. The lingcod's white, flaky flesh is topped with aromatic slivers of Asian chives and yellow leeks, and is so fresh it gently comes apart at the touch of a chopstick; we ended up scooping pieces of fish onto our plates with spoons full of its glorious, translucent broth—they should just make that broth into its own restorative soup.
The power of a good broth is also emphasized in the Shanghai dumpling ($5.25 back in 2003; $6.95 today) appetizers—juicy, ground seasoned pork and minced green onion encased in dough—finished with a generous hit of hot soup, accompanied with vinegar-soy dipping sauce. Those hot, moist, satisfying dumplings are reason enough to shun Atkins, no matter how many pounds you're guaranteed to shed. If noodles and dumplings are wrong, then I don't wanna be right.
*Shanghai Garden is currently open only in its original location in Seattle's International District.