Shanghai was probably the city I've visited which filled the biggest gap between what I knew about the city before visiting and what I took away with me after leaving. One thing I did know about Shanghai was that it was the center of the universe for one of my favorite snacks, xiaolongbao (aka soup dumplings). For those not familiar with xiaolongbao they're incredibly delicate, thin skinned dumplings which contain a mix of ground meat (pork, chicken, etc.) and, more importantly, a bit of delicious porky broth that gushes out of the dumpling as soon as you bite into it. They're difficult to make right, but when they are, there's nothing else like it. I've survived on soup dumplings in the US for my forty-some odd years and now realize I've been seriously deprived. Our stay in Shanghai was short, and there was an incredible array of dining options, so our exploration of xialongbao was limited. Even still, we managed to hit some of the city's favorite soup dumpling spots and here's what we found.
JIA JIA TANGBAO
|China Art Museum at the|
China Pavilion on the
site of the 2010 Expo
Jia Jia Tangbao is difficult to find just because (i) there's no English signage, (ii) the address numbers in Shanghai are not always readily visible and (iii) Apple maps placed the restaurant in the middle of the Huangpu river. Once you find it you get ecstatic. Then you realize you're going to be dining in one of the most spartan, sparsely decorated places you'll ever eat (and by sparsely decorated I mean the cups holding the chopsticks at each table have to serve their utilitarian duty of, well, holding chopsticks as well as providing the only aesthetically pleasing decor in the place). I can deal with dives, but a dive in China has that little extra element of danger. The restaurant is cramped, dingy and incredibly humid, which I guess are the ideal conditions for dumpling-making. There's a guard/hostess at the entrance who takes your order, hands you a ticket then lets you fend for yourself to nab a precious, available seat. She was incredibly efficient though, pulling out an English menu before I even opened my mouth (the alternative being ordering from a board with removable placards that are taken down as items run out). There's only so many things you can stuff into a dumpling so ordering is quick. I was proud of my order of one set (12 pieces) of pork ($2.00) and one set of pork+crab dumplings ($4.00). While putting in the order D jostled for a table across from the open kitchen.
|Hot out the steamer|
Worried about seeming inexperienced in the correct way of eating xiaolongbao in the place where it was conceived, I intently watched the tourist channel at my hotel for an entire morning waiting for the excerpt on soup dumpling etiquette. It turns out it's pretty simple. First grab a dumpling with chopsticks and hold it over your spoon. Next take a bit out of the top of the dumpling and slurp out the soup. This is the trickiest part as the soup may be scalding hot, causing you to burn every part of your mouth. This may then lead you to let the dumplings cool which unfortunately makes the skin gummy and the soup fatty tasting (the broth is, after all, gelatinized into a solid first so it could be put in a dumpling, dissolving into a tasty broth when heated). After leaving a gaping hole in your dumpling you dunk that puppy in vinegar and top with grated ginger. It's like heaven when done correctly and Jia Jia's soup dumplings were incredible. After the first bite they became my instant favorite. Until the pork+crab dumplings arrived. I've always been a fan of the swine/seafood combo (chorizo and clams, lardons with mussels) and these dumplings brought the best of both worlds into one tiny package. We splurged and ordered another dozen (again, these were $4.00). I've resigned myself to knowing I will never have a soup dumpling experience like this outside of Shanghai ever again. The mix of ingredients, freshness, kitsch and the absurd value make it special. So how to top this experience...?
NANXIANG STEAMED BUN
and stinky tofu
|Not so great dumplings|
But Nanxiang is about dumplings and the pork dumplings we ordered were, frankly, disappointing. Thick skin that sometimes stuck to the bamboo and tore, releasing the soup and making it just a plain old dumpling. After reading, hearing and seeing so much about Nanxiang my expectations were huge. I wanted to warn the people waiting in the endless line to turn around and grab a pigeon on a stick instead. But Nanxiang is a tradition in Shanghai and although some traditional places have lost their way, there are those that see past faults and inadequacies just to grab onto some old memory of what was once great. So what do you do if an old stalwart dissappoints...?
DIN TAI FUNG
Wait a minute, a Taiwanese restaurant expanded to Shanghai and had the audacity to serve its denizens the very food that is most associated with their city? That's exactly what Din Tai Fung did, and to huge success. The Taiwanese chain has expanded worldwide to build an empire spanning mainland China, Japan, Australia, the U.S. and beyond. The gripe with DTF? The price. Xiaolongbao enthusiasts find paying $7.00 to $10.00 for an order absurd. But from experience, the price tag is worth it. DTF goes a bit beyond the offerings of specialty dumpling places, adding truffle dumplings and pork/liver dumplings to the usual pork, crab, etc. The setting is also a heck of a lot more upscale so you're paying extra for unheard-of-at-divey-dumpling house things like napkins, plates, placemats and a waitress.
|For the uninitiated|
|Double the price,|
half the portion
As expected, the dumplings here were as good as they should be. Thin skin, rich broth and the differentiator of having out of the ordinary offerings (both of which we tried, the liver and truffle, overpowered the rest of the fillings). They truly were superior to those at Jia Jia, but in the same way that a Mozart concerto is technically superior to a Green Day single.
So in my mini-xiaolongbao battle in Shanghai the winner is Jia Jia Tangbao. Great dumplings in a sufficiently suspect environment and dirt cheap. The value proposition makes it the obvious choice, although if you want less of a hassle, Din Tai Fung is the place the head to. Jia Jia Tangbao isn't a secret and the lines outside give away that this place is special.
|Follow the line to Jia Jia Tangbao|