January 17-23, 2007

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Potstickers and dumplings at Ding Sheng

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Dumpling gang: Potstickers and dumplings at Ding Sheng

Mall That

Milpitas' Ulferts Center will change your mind about mall food

By Stett Holbrook

IF THERE'S one guiding fact I've discovered eating out in Silicon Valley it's that minimalls and shopping centers offer some of the best dining around, especially if you're after cheap and delicious ethnic food.

Mall food may have a bad connotation elsewhere, but in these parts the mall is where it's at, especially in Milpitas, which is really just a whole bunch of malls with some neighborhoods mixed in.

The city's signature mall is Milpitas Square, a sprawling shopping center anchored by a Ranch 99 market and filled with Asian restaurants of almost every stripe. But just down the road is Ulferts Center, a smaller, two-story mall that's like a condensed version of Milpitas Square. For aficionados of Asian food that hasn't been watered down for white bread American tastes, the mall is well worth exploring.

I stopped in for lunch at Ulferts Center several times and here's what I found. ABC Seafood Restaurant is one of Milpitas' better-known eateries. The multisided restaurant occupies the second level of the mall and has windows that look out on the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west and the Diablo Range to the east. You've probably seen people dining in the restaurant as you drive north on Interstate 880 just before Highway 237.

ABC is a Hong Kong-style restaurant, and that means dim sum and lots of fresh, fancifully prepared seafood. The seafood greets as you soon as you walk in. There are live tanks holding Dungeness crab, king crab, rockfish, prawns, lobster and other sea creatures. A sure sign that you're in a Hong Kong-style Chinese restaurant is the big desiccated shark dorsal fin in the display case near the front door. Ecologically incorrect shark fin is traditionally served at Chinese weddings and banquets and is supposed to demonstrate to all that the host is a high roller because he can afford the pricey ingredient. ABC features shark fin in several soups as well as a dish called "double boiled dried seafood deluxe" that goes for a cool $350. Shark fin is all about status and thin on flavor and I don't recommend it at any price.

I do recommend the dim sum. At lunch the place is a traffic jam of dim sum carts wheeling around the dining room proffering an assortment of little snacks. The servers who push the carts seem to be particularly invested in their wares and aren't easily discouraged when you say no. Knowing when to say yes and when to say no is the tricky part of dim sum. It all looks pretty good, but it's easy to load up and just when you can't eat any more another cart rolls by with more good stuff.

Some of the good stuff I had included the fried tofu skin roll stuffed with shrimp and chive ($2.60), the steamed barbecued pork rice noodle ($3.80) and the roast duck ($3.80).

Before loading up on dim sum, however, consider a bowl of congee. On a cold rainy day, the bowl of rice porridge was actually more appealing than the dim sum. Available with a choice of meat or seafood (I had clam, $6.50), the flavorful gruel is enlivened with threads of fresh ginger and sliced green onion. Adding a few chunks of the Chinese donuts served on the side makes it even more appealing. But be warned: the bowl is big enough for four so plan your meal accordingly.

Downstairs, Ding Sheng was my favorite restaurant at Ulferts. The bustling restaurant specializes in Shanghai-style Chinese food but features a wide variety of regional dishes. Shanghai dishes include cold weather fare like dumplings, braised meats and sweet and savory meats.

On a cold winter day, try the burly braised pork meatballs ($9.95). The dish consists of four huge balls swaddled in a thick, syrupy salty-sweet sauce and crunchy stir-fried bok choy.

Another winner is spinach with thousand-year-old eggs (called "broth lily" on the menu). It's another Shanghai specialty that features a mound of fresh sautéed spinach in a in a garlicky, buttery broth. The dish is topped with steamed shimp and chopped "thousand-year-old eggs." Thousand-year-old eggs are made by preserving duck eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime and black tea for several months. The result yields a yolk that's grayish green and whites that look like cola-colored gelatin. As cool as it looks, the eggs don't have much flavor.

Dumplings and potstickers are also winners here. They take a while to reach your table because they're made to order. Nyonya Bistro is one of two non-Chinese restaurants at the mall. (Thai Bistro is the other.) Nyonya serves Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine.

If you squint your eyes a bit, the large black and white photo of a Penang street scene hanging on the wall blends in with the crowds at lunch and makes you feel like you're somewhere other than a Milpitas mall.

Roti canai ($2.95) is the classic Malaysian starter and it's great here. The light, crispy pancake is served with a great peanut curry dipping sauce with just enough spiciness to make you notice. I've had better beef rendang ($7.95) but the coconut-cinnamon curry dish is still good.

Spend some time eating around Ulferts Center and you'll make some discoveries of your own.

ABC Seafood

Address: 768 Barber Lane, Milpitas.

Phone: 408.435.8888.

Hours: 11am-2:30pm and 5-9:30pm daily.

Cuisine: Hong Kong-style Chinese.

Price Range: $4.50-$350.

Ding Sheng Restaurant

Address: 686 Barber Lane, Milpitas.

Phone: 408.943.8786.

Hours: 11am-2:30pm and 5pm-midnight daily.

Cuisine: Shanghai-style Chinese.

Price Range: $4.95-$22.95.

Nyonya Bistro

Address: 680 Barber Lane, Milpitas.

Phone: 408.383.0886.

Hours: 11am-3pm and 5-10pm daily.

Cuisine: Malaysian.

Price Range: $5.95-$14.95.

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