Soup Dumplings – Joe’s Shanghai

If you’ve never drank pork fat before, you ought to try. Before soup dumplings, the closest I’d had was ramen with pork belly in Japan, where the fat melts into the spicy broth for a sublime, rich treat. Then I watched Anthony Bourdain go to Shanghai for street food, and he had soup dumplings. They looked like little pillows of paradise, full of pork and enlightenment.
So when I asked my co-worker “the Oracle” about them, since he hails from Shanghai by way of Mississippi. And he told me to try Joe’s Shanghai, where I could get these Shanghai specialties in the States. I wasted no time, and we tried their uptown location.
The dumplings come in two flavors- pork or crabmeat. You eat them by biting or cutting a tiny slit in the dumpling skin so the delicious rich broth can fill the spoon. Then you sip it, and devour the dumpling whole. They can be a meal in themselves, but Joe’s Shanghai has plenty more to offer.
Their hot & sour soup is some of the best I’ve had- spicy and flavorful, with lots of shrimp, mushrooms and tofu. None of the greasiness you get with typical take-out soup, this was fantastic.
We ended up taking the entrees home because the dumplings are so filling, but the Shanghai fried noodles with pork is quite delicious, and the General Tso’s chicken was some of the best I’ve tasted as well.
There are plenty of great Chinese restaurants in Chinatown- Hop Kee, Hunan Garden, and the dim sum joint in the basement on Mott & Mosco- but in the theater district this is the place to go.

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Kung Fu Panda

Wow, this was a lot better than I expected. It’s like a Sammo Hung kung fu movie with animals. If you don’t know who Sammo Hung is, he’s a chubby kung fu goofball who palled up with Jackie Chan several times and has many great Hong Kong fooey movies to his own credit. With subtle titles like Enter the Fat Dragon, you know what you’re getting into. Kung Fu Panda has some of the same spirit and manages to be more of a kung fu movie than just a kid movie, and that- along with an excellent voice cast- is what makes it worthwhile.
Jack Black plays Po, a panda who works at his father’s noodle shop. His father, Mr. Ping, is a rather goofy-looking duck voiced by the irreplaceable James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner) who even managed to make Balls of Fury tolerable. Ping’s “secret ingredient noodle soup” is thw town favorite, so Po is too busy slinging noodles to learn kung fu. When he hears that the Shaolin Temple will be choosing the Dragon Warrior- the only disciple worthy of viewing the secrets of the legendary Dragon Scroll- he must attend, but of course Pops wants him to go and sell noodles outside.
The Shaolin Temple is where Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a wizened red panda teaches his disciples, the Furious Five (not Grandmaster Flash’s band, either). They are Mantis, Tigress, Crane, Monkey, and Viper, after the 5 fighting styles of Shaolin. They are played by Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu respectively- and all relatively on the down-low, letting their characters speak for themselves, you could say (if anyone steals the show, it’s David Cross’s Crane). Shifu is concerned that his old enemy, Tai Lung- a warrior so fearsome that an entire prison manned with rhino guards was constructed to contain him- may be plotting to escape. He wishes to give one of his students the knowledge of the Dragon Scroll, to be ready for the inevitable battle.
Po lugs his noodle cart up the mountain’s endless stairs, and through his clumsy attempts at viewing the choosing of the Dragon Warrior, his fat black ‘n white butt ends up in the middle of the ceremony. And of course, the wise elder Oogway- an ancient turtle, who like all kung fu masters, looks frail and slow but has powers that Yoda would envy- chooses the lowly fat panda to be the Dragon Warrior. Can such a lazy, gluttonous kung fu fanboy be trained to fight at all? Can he convince Master Shifu to take him seriously?

From here on it reminded me a lot of Jackie Chan’s earlier kung fu comedies like Half a Loaf of Kung Fu and the original Drunken Master. There is plenty of character-based humor and wordplay to keep the adults laughing while the slapstick keeps the kiddies rolling. Po is hapless and helpless. Sure, he’s a kung fu fanboy but he is beaten by a training dummy. But he’s got what fighters call “heart,” because he never gives up. Even when he probably should. When Tai Lung escapes (of course), Shifu has no choice but to train him.
The story is nothing new- it’s like a hundred kung fu films where the unlikely, destined warrior must be trained to defeat the undefeatable, but in Kung Fu Panda the humor, stunningly gorgeous backgrounds and catchy character designs, and the characters themselves make it shine. Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu is the one who must redeem himself, in a change of pace- Po will always be Po, and just needs to believe in himself, as disciples must. Po’s Daddy Duck Mr. Ping- who we at first expect to be a joke, or be the Angry Dad who wants to ruin his dreams- also gets a touching layer of depth that will make you stop wondering how he fathered a panda in the first place.
The animation is quite good, and while the battles are a little less exciting when you’ve seen Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, which brings them to such a level of ridiculousness that even animation can’t top them, but the training sequences are both funny and exhilarating. There’s a fight over a dumpling that is so perfect that you’ll know they watched many, many classic old kung fu flicks and loved them before embarking on this project. And that’s what made the movie for me- sure, it’s not at the level of Pixar, but like Horton Hears a Who!, it strives for that level of excellence. Unlike Horton, it doesn’t quite reach it story-wise, but it’s still a blast and much better than I expected. Few, if any pop culture references, and the stars play characters, not themselves.

For example Ian McShane (Deadwood, Hot Rod) plays Tai Lung- a power-hungry warrior who’s not evil, or even misunderstood- but when we find out why he wants that Dragon Scroll so badly, he’s a character, not just a Bad Guy. But of course, whether you will like or hate this movie really depends on what you think of Jack Black- he’s more self-effacing here than in his usual persona, as in Tenacious D, but if you find him grating this movie is not for you. I found Po refreshing after Black’s habit of playing (with) himself, and his timing is perfect. Ebert complained that he isn’t charismatic enough, but that’s sort of the joke- I wouldn’t want to be around Jeff Lebowski all the time either.

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