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Shanghai City Restaurant

3860 Convoy Street #105, Kearny Mesa

Wow. First it's the gold, then it's the silver. You come through a so-so exterior from a fairly blah shopping center, and...ka-boom. You're surrounded by gold. I mean classy, not brassy. This little piece of Shanghai looks like one of those century-old places in San Francisco's Chinatown. Real gold-and-painted dragon columns, a gold dragon arch that leads you into the dining room of burnished gold walls, lanterns, and chairs with scarlet cushions.

The silver? A majestic fish swims alone in a tank. It has the most incredible silver scales. It's, like, impossibly beautiful, satinized, with dark been-there, done-that eyes.

The girl at reception says it's an arowana fish. They can grow to four feet in length. This one's about two feet. It follows me with its eye, I swear.

The girl -- never do catch her name -- leads me to a gold-studded red leatherette booth. I sit down, and my eyes travel upward. The ceiling is studded with red, black, and gold foot-square panels. Each is carved with golden phoenixes circling dragons. Distant speakers pump out soupy soft rock. Donny and Marie kinda stuff -- except it's in Chinese. In the background, I hear the chuck-chunk scoopings of a stir-frying chef at his wok.

The girl brings me a specials menu. Everything's a five- or six-dollar bargain. I'm wondering what Shanghai cooking is, what makes it different.

Carla and I have always yakked about going over to Shanghai. Another pipe dream, but that city today has to be the way New York was in the 1890s. Bursting with energy. In 1995, more than half the world's high-rise cranes were at work in Shanghai. Can you imagine?

The family here are all from Shanghai. Guests seem to be too. At least, that's what the waitress says. For sure, I'm not hearing a lot of English. An extra list of specials is written on a wall poster in vertical Chinese characters -- no English. If the immigrant community supports this place, I figure it must be authentic.

A young Chinese couple comes in and plonks into the next booth. They have endless discussions with the waitress in Chinese. Ten minutes later, she brings them a whole fish on a platter, surrounded by colorful strips of vegetables in gravy. "Steamed rockfish," she says. Magnificent. "On special, but only some days." It's $14.95. More than enough for the two of them. In the booth on the other side, a family picks from a clay hot pot filled with eel and chestnuts ($10.95).

'Course the main menu is one of those four-page, 150-item jobs filled with cold-plate dishes like "Shanghai simmered duck," "roast aromatic beef slices," and "jelly fish" ($4.75 each), hot soups (more expensive, between $5.00 and $11.00), and seafood, the biggest category. No surprise there. Shanghai is this mega-port at the mouth of the Yangtse River. Apparently, "Shanghai" means "On the Sea." Beef, lamb, pork, vegetable dishes, sizzling plates, and clay hot pots all look exotic, but no. I'm here for lunch.

The luncheon specials menu has two simple categories, $4.95 and $5.95. The first item looks the most interesting. "Shanghai chicken," sliced chicken stir-fried with onions and garlic in "our chef's special sauce."

"Is that a brown sauce?" I ask.

The girl nods.

Brown sauce seems to be a Shanghai thing. I check the alternatives. Kung Pao chicken, garlic chicken, chicken chop suey (the Chinese-American gold-rush dish), Szechuan pork (shredded, with vegetables in a chili-pepper sauce), and sweet-and-sour are all $4.95. Shrimp, Shanghai chow mein, and noodle soup are a dollar more.

"Take the chop suey," says the waitress, seeing me hesitate. "Filling. It has vegetables as well as meat."

In the end, though, I go for the Shanghai chicken, mainly to see what's "Shanghai" about it.

The gal brings a big pot of Chinese tea with a little Chinese bowl for drinking it. Then comes a dish of crispy noodles with a saucer of red sweet sauce. Then a soup, hot and sour, filled with solids like black Chinese mushroom slices and cubes of bean curd. Then she brings a plate loaded on one side with steamed rice, on the other with a sea of chopped chicken in a brown sauce, with, yes, bits of chopped green onion shining through. A deep-fried spring roll sits in the middle.

It's the chicken that stars, with its soy-flavored, tangy brown sauce. You need the rice to counter the richness, and that cabbage-filled spring roll's a nice contrast too. Heck, I dip it into the sweet appetizer sauce.

Bottom line is I can't finish the plate. And I was hongry.

There's a nice final touch. Along with the bill (it's $5.33), they bring three slices of an orange for you to suck on to refresh your mouth. I mean, it's civilized, it's filling, it's a heck of a nice deal.

"You're in love with a fish?" says Carla, later. We're sitting up in bed, polishing off the rest of the Shanghai chicken.

"Arowana, arowana," I mumble. "If I could have just touched those scales...I mean, women are okay, but there's nothing like the real thing."

"Well, dear, that's between you and your ichthyologist. Pass the rice?"

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