When it comes to Christmas Day traditions, I'm a fan of eating a big nap-inducing meal at a Chinese restaurant packed with Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists. My go-to place is Shanghai Garden, where there's a line out the door and down the sidewalk, and people hold numbered cards that the hosts bring out to deal with the Christmas crush.
"Have you ever tried Bamboo Garden?" a friend recently asked when I told him about my Shanghai Garden tradition.
I had not. The friend told me Bamboo Garden is kosher, something Shanghai Garden—with its steaming bowls of pork-infused hot-and-sour soup and delicious salt-and-pepper squid—is not even trying to be. I don't keep kosher, but if you do (or if you are vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise strict about putting meat in its place), then you should know about Bamboo Garden.
At Bamboo Garden, all the meat is actually "meat" constructed from vegetable protein. On a recent visit, the host even bragged about how a rabbi comes through every day to inspect the kitchen so that Bamboo Garden can keep its kosher certification.
Which place should you choose if you don't worship Santa Claus (or if you do but don't want to cook)? For sure, both will be full of pleased patrons on Christmas. At Shanghai Garden, they'll wait near the fish tank for one of the huge circular tables that can seat a whole extended family. At Bamboo Garden, they'll jostle around the entryway while waiting for booths that are upholstered in what feels like velvet corduroy.
Bamboo Garden has a massive menu, but the place is at its best when it's not trying to pass off "meat" as meat and instead just celebrating vegetables. Bamboo Garden's Szechuan eggplant, for example, is a total delight, especially compared to the Szechuan eggplant at Shanghai Garden. Bamboo Garden's brought an explosion of flavor and had a texture that, appropriately, belonged to the eggplant family; Shanghai Garden's arrived distressingly gooey and sodden with sauce.
What if your chilly December day is going to be ruined without proper hot-and-sour soup? Then that's easy: Go to Shanghai Garden. They make an absolutely perfect hot-and-sour soup from a pork-heavy base that seeps into the egg and tofu and hits all the right notes on the hot-to-sour spectrum. Bamboo Garden's, disappointingly, was more on the sweet-and-sour spectrum.
What if veggie-packed sizzling noodles are your thing? Also an easy answer: Go to Bamboo Garden, where, if you're lucky, they might even stage an exciting sizzle-show as the plate nears your table.
And if you're one of those people who believes it's not a Chinese dinner until General Tso's chicken is eaten? Then you've got to go to Shanghai Garden, where the General Tso's is made from real chicken—as opposed to the General Tso's "chicken" at Bamboo Garden, which arrives as several giant fried balls of vegetable protein doused in a sauce that is far too sweet to be General Tso's.
Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful both of these places are open on Christmas, and you should be, too. And whichever you choose this year, your tastes may change over time. My fortune cookie at Shanghai Garden assured me that whatever I believe now, "a new perspective will come in the new year."