LJ Huang on Shanghainese Food, Culture, and Community

Shortly after moving to Cleveland, LJ Huang began to search for homestyle Shanghainese food.

“There were a lot of good Chinese restaurants, but I wanted my food—my comfort food.” LJ explained. It was 2010, and simultaneously, she found herself attending potlucks and community parties within the Chinese and AsiaTown community. She started to bring her homemade xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, to these parties. Before long, she was gaining recognition within the community for the dish. Connecting through WeChat, community members began to request the soup dumplings for their parties. Building a following one by one through word of mouth, the soup dumplings became incredibly popular and people began to insist they pay for orders.

Eventually, the popularity grew to the point where LJ and her husband decided to start their own business. In November 2017, LJ Shanghai opened at 3142 Superior Road in Cleveland’s AsiaTown neighborhood. They developed a traditional Shanghainese menu. “It’s different from other Chinese or Chinese American food,” LJ explained. “It’s sweeter—there’s always a little bit of sugar put in—and a lot of soy sauce.”

Today, the soup dumplings remain as popular as ever. Walker MacMurdo of Cleveland Magazine called them “one of the single best things you can eat in Cleveland.”

Many customers ask LJ to explain how she’s able to get soup inside these delicious dumplings, which are filled with pork and broth, but she won’t tell. “It’s a secret recipe,” she said when we talked, smiling knowingly.

In addition to the traditional pork dumplings, LJ offers vegetarian and seafood options. And these aren’t the only spins on traditional dishes that she offers. “Spicy is very popular in this market, so we did create some dishes with spice.” These include the Chongqing Spicy Beef Noodle Soup and Spicy Chaoshou, two dishes that have proven particularly popular. Though, LJ was quick to warn, “Shanghainese food is usually sweet, but when we do spice—it’s spicy.”

Ultimately, though, LJ notes that the restaurant is about more than just food. LJ, who is always on site, likes to connect personally with her customers. Each meal is an opportunity to share her history and culture. “I bring all of my culture to this country, and I want to show more of my culture. It is just food, but it’s also you—it’s how you work, it’s your story, spirit, culture. It’s an opportunity to teach and learn.”

LJ loves to not just share her experience, but to learn about others, and this shows in her easy rapport with her diners. Customers are greeted like friends, and she offered helpful guidance and recommendations to everyone who came through while I was there. Before I left, with my own order of soup dumplings, she carefully explained the correct way to eat them.

“Through our food, you can recognize me and my culture, and I can recognize you,” She explained, “I’d like to see this world as more colorful, more mixed. I think it’s more powerful.”

LJ Shanghai reopened their dining room to customers this past April with social distancing and safety guidelines in place. They now offer dine-in and carry out options, and also provide food for private parties. You can see their full menu, or call in your order at (216) 400-6936.

Soup Dumplings Cropped