Here's how my friend orders food at his favorite local spot, Shangri-La: He looks around for a table where at least two generations of Chinese families are eating (this is easy here) and asks the waitress to bring him several of the dishes they ordered.
That's how we found our way to bean-curd skin rolls ($6.75), a cold appetizer. Not especially enticing, you're thinking. But they're terrific. Paper-thin skins, which have the quality and texture of a thin omelet, are wrapped around crisp bean sprouts and served with a spicy peanut sauce. Another dish we notice is white turnip cakes ($3.50), pureed roots shaped with rice flour into plump rounds and pan-fried. Think of them as Taiwanese risotto cakes.
Jumbo meatballs arrive in a mound, surrounded by a circle of bright, steamed baby bok choy ($8.75); the bulbs of the greens are exactly the same size as the plump pork balls. The only sauce on the plate is cooking juices from the steamed meat. "Three delight" with flat noodles ($6.25) is a kind of chow foon: Shrimp, squid, and chicken are tossed with the noodles and a soy-based sauce. It goes well with spicy eggplant ($8.25), thick meaty strips of vegetable in a fiery sauce.
The six-year-old Shangri-La is owned by the Huang family. Sze Feng and Ann run the restaurant with their three sons. Wei, born in Taiwan, a recent Suffolk University graduate, works at the restaurant after his day job in finance at Bysis Group. John, born in Osaka, when his father was working there, goes to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; he's learning the business at his father's side. Jeffrey is a student at Suffolk and works at the restaurant on weekends. Their father worked for a cousin in her Newton restaurant, Chung-Shin Yuan, before going into business for himself.
On the phone, John Huang says, "We try to make everything to order. We don't have heat lamps in our kitchen. That's why some items take a little longer." Indeed, when we ask for a steamed vegetable bun ($1.50 for one), we're told it will take 20 minutes. A very hot, airy round arrives, a filling of cabbage, shiitakes, and tofu tucked inside tender white dough. Crispy shrimp ($10.50), tails intact, are fanned along their curves; they're quite juicy, and terrific dipped into a little dish of salt spiked with hot pepper.
Shangri-La is a little like visiting Chinatown. The lights are too bright, and the 40-seat place always boasts a full house, especially on weekends for dim sum, and even early on weeknights. But the friendly staff moves tables and chairs around to accommodate large families or couples, and children are always running around.
In any case, you're usually quite close to the people beside you. Which is good if you want to peer over at their orders to see what to get.