The first time I tried xiao long bao — a.k.a. soup dumplings or Shanghai dumplings — was at Joe’s Shanghai in midtown Manhattan. This was 12 years ago: my friend was spending the summer there and I came down from New England to visit. We were on our way to meet another friend for lunch, but decided to quickly stop in to Joe’s for a couple baskets of pre-lunch dumplings. They were amazing! Xiao long bao (XLB) are thin-skinned wheat noodle dumplings filled with gingery ground pork and a jelly-like aspic, that melts into pork stock upon steaming. They are always served with a dish of red vinegar with slivers of ginger in it. You are meant to scoop some vinegar into your spoon, pick up the dumpling from the top knot with your chopsticks, nibble a little hole to let out the steam (and suck out a little broth if you like), dip the dumpling in the vinegar, and slurp the whole thing down. Those dumplings at Joe’s made quite an impression on me, but I missed them when I returned to the west coast. I mistakenly thought they weren’t available in Sacramento! It can be difficult to tell what’s available when reading the English on a Chinese restaurant menu. Virtually every other type of dumpling could be described as a “steamed pork bun”. Eventually a couple friends and I discovered that Boba Cafe on Freeport Boulevard served soup dumplings, but they were not on the menu. After some trial and error, we learned that you had to order them by the name Xiao long bao (pronounced shao-long-bao, with “shao” and “bao” rhyming with cow) in order to avoid accidentally ordering dumplings served in a bowl of soup.
Boba’s XLB are delicious, and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for them, because they were the first place I found them locally. But they aren’t the best in town.
New Canton’s XLB aren’t the best in town either. I’m a New Canton dim sum fan in general, but their XLB are clearly an afterthought. The skins often rip, the broth is nice and gingery, but the pork filling is bland. It was interesting that a few years after I moved back to Sacramento and discovered the XLB at Boba, they started showing up on the carts at New Canton.
One of my good friends detests New Canton in favor of Hong Kong Islander for dim sum. I like Hong Kong Islander too, and its nice to switch things up now and then. Hong Kong Islander’s XLB didn’t show well in this round-up, but I’ve enjoyed them before; these had very little broth and were filled to the edges of the wrapper with the pork stuffing. The whole thing had a soggy and overly soft effect. Ideally the noodle wrapper would have more of an al dente texture. Perhaps these had been on the cart too long?
Would you be surprised if I told you the XLB at Yang’s Noodles came in first place? No, I didn’t think you would be. But would you be surprised if I told you that they were almost tied for first…with Macau Café? I’ve been eating at Macau for years and never knew they served XLB. All of sudden a photo of the lovingly wrapped dumplings appeared on the pictorial wall menu! I ordered them, and ten dumplings arrived in large steamer basket beautifully presented on top of a few romaine lettuce leaves. The wrapper had great texture, the broth was flavorful, the pork was gingery, and the vinegar had a nice funkiness to it. This has become one of my favorite orders at Macau — perfect alongside an order of the wilted romaine with shrimp sauce, chili and garlic.
But yes, the XLB at Yang’s Noodles ruled the roost. The wrapper had the best texture by far, not surprising from a restaurant who specializes in handmade noodles. The broth was deep and rich, and the vinegar was really good — a bit sweeter than most I’ve tasted. These come 8 to a large steamer tin, served atop napa cabbage leaves.
Where do you like to get xiao long bao in town?