Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Quest for XLB (Shanghai Juicy Dumplings)

Another food post?  What can I say?  I've been doing a lot of eating and a little less of sewing (doing mostly alterations at the moment which always makes me fret that I'm going to ruin something and thus takes seemingly much longer than "from scratch") though I intend to go back soon!

Sometimes I dream of the perfect reality show, "The Next Xiao Long Bao Idol", where I am, of course, the judge / dictator (judgetator?).  I would tell my contestants to make me a bao (bun) with the 3 tenets of XLB:
  1. Thin, delicate bao skin - so thin, it's translucent and you can see the yummy broth inside.  Not so thin, that it spills said yummy broth.
  2. Tender, flavorful pork filling w/ or w/o crab
  3. A generous portion of rich, savory broth.  Must gush, not unlike a water balloon.  Broth also must have depth.  Not just water + salt + bouillon.
Drool...  Ahem, I've gotten ahead of myself.  To those unfamiliar, a Xiao Long Bao (XLB) is a Shanghai Juicy Dumpling.  Directly translated, it's a Little Basket (Dragon? They sound the same and I can no longer read.  This is what happens when I stop using what I've learned) Bun.  It's a golf ball-sized dumpling encompassing soup and meat.  When you bite into it, you literally get an explosion of flavor.  I was skeptical at first, thinking I could get the same effect by placing a dumpling on a spoon full of soup.  But I was WRONG.  It. Is. SO. GOOD. 

If you ever want to try but don't live near a restaurant with XLB, get the frozen version found in many Asian markets.  It's an ok representation enough to whet your appetite for more.  Don't overcook it though!  The meat will get tough and your bao might deflate and leak out that juicy goodness.  Then if you become a fan, I highly recommend you visit your nearest Din Tai Fung or San Francisco's Shanghai Dumpling King.

Ah DTF, this is the holy grail of XLB
There's a Ding Tai Fung in Toronto (pictured above) and then there's the international chain Din Tai Fung that started in Taiwan.  I've tried the Toronto version and the official chain version in LA.  I have to say that the Toronto one was a little bit better with a larger portion of broth.  I hear the Taiwan one is the best though and I hope to someday try it out!

If you should hold the bao by the tip, you will see the bottom sag from the weight of the soup.  The amazing thing is that despite the abundant soup and the thin skin, this skin will not break!  The consistent quality of their wrappers means that every single bao will deliver that joyous gush of broth.

In San Francisco, I've tried XLB at the Yelp-recommended eateries, Shanghai Dumpling King and Kingdom of Dumpling.  I'll start with my favorite of the 2, Shanghai Dumpling King:
Shanghai Dumpling King - Pork version
When I first saw these, I was a little worried about broth content as the wrappers looked like they had shrunken against the filling and no soup was in sight.

But I was wrong!

See this poofiness?  Indicative of an intact wrapper containing deliciousness within

The crab version had even more broth inside!

Crab version

Pan Fried Pork Buns
This was good, but the filling (only took up maybe 1/3 of the hollow space inside the bao) to bao ratio was off.  It was awfully pretty though.

Onion Pancake
Light, thin, and crispy!

Fresh Soy Milk

I used to view the wrapper portion of XLB as merely the vessel holding the tastiness within.  At Shanghai Dumpling King, even the wrapper was incredibly flavorful.  I don't know how they do it, but those guys / gals really understand flavors and EVERYTHING (wrapper, filling, broth) we had there was well-developed, complex, and YUMMY.

I usually prefer either the pork version OR the crab version at a given eatery, but both were so good here that I plan to eat 5 of each every time I visit.  Should I mention that each basket of 10 costs only $5.50 (I think the crab is only slightly more expensive)???  Heaven, I tell you.  If you live or visit the area, I highly recommend you try their XLB.  

How does it compare to DTF?  The skin is much thinner and also more delicate.  A wrong move means a popped dumpling.  I recommend using your chopsticks to carefully roll it onto a spoon.  I think I only popped 1 of the ~15 I ate this way while Mom (a little on the stubborn side) popped half of hers by picking up the tip with her chopsticks.  Ultimately, I think SDK has better flavor, but DTF has better consistency and their XLB always looks beautiful (never deflated).  You can't really go wrong with either.

And Kingdom of Dumpling:
Kingdom of Dumpling 
The XLB here are decent, but unfortunately not up to par with DTF.  See the skin in the left photo? Not thin enough to see the broth.  See the chopstick test?  Bao does not droop with the weight of the broth. The filling was tender and each bao had a good amount of soup, but I felt like both needed a little more seasoning and richness.  

BUT I will say the other items we ordered were delicious:
Beef Ho Fun
Has wok hei (the breath of a hot wok imparts a unique flavor to dishes similar to the flavor that grills add to a burger) and bursts with flavor.

Pork Dumplings
Tender, moist, and flavorful fillings with the perfect skin.  Not too thin to break apart and not too thick to seem dough-y.

Next on my list to try is Yank Sing.  Bay area foodies, do you have any additional XLB eatery recommendations?

Off topic, does anyone play the app "Ruzzle"?  It's a Boggle-esque game where you can play against anyone.  If any of you happen to be bored, look me up!  I am "sewsilly" :)

And I am getting acquainted with Instagram (yes, it only took me years to get onboard), so you can find me there @sewpetitegal


  1. Hi! I'm a longtime reader and originally from the Bay Area (missing it right now from NYC). I had never found a good XLB place in SF and am now determined to try the places you mentioned during my next visit back home. While I don't have a XLB place for you, I would like to recommend some dim sum places to you: Koi Palace in Daly City (I think) and Restaurant Peony. From reading your post, it seems like you're canto like me, and we all know how important dim sum is to canto people (or at least to my family haha)

    1. I am Cantonese! Was born in HK, but grew up in US. Am definitely going to look into Restaurant Peony (have tried Koi Palace already, hehe) - thanks for the rec!

  2. Amazing review SPG! Love DTF. I dont know what authentic dumplings taste like so its hard for me to compare it with anything else :)

  3. omg SPG, I frequent Shanghai Dumpling King all the time. It's one of my faves! I like to think myself somewhat of an XLB connoisseur, because I grew up eating these delicious pockets of yumminess and I'm Shanghainese. Although you seem much more the aficionado than I am, what with your 3 concise and specific tenets.
    Another thing to try the next time you're at SDK is the lion's head soup. It's amazing. Both broth and meatball have amazing flavor. When you get your soup, go ahead and quarter or just cut up all the meatballs, because they are like bowling balls, lol jk.

    You're right. Literally translated, it means Small Dragon Bun. I've never been to a DTF, but hope to visit one the next time I'm in SoCal.
    I agree with you about KOD too. It has good flavor, but the skin is just average, like pre-made, run of the mill store-bought quality.

    I will also make a mental note to post some pictures of the XLB I ate when I was in Shanghai a couple of months ago, but I definitely don't know how soon or how late that will be and my pictures are nowhere near as excellent as yours.

    Sorry for my super long post.

  4. also Yank Sing is a great restaurant, but I really wasn't too impressed with the quality of their dishes. But please do give it a try and let me know if I'm missing something. (I work right by the one of their locations!)
    & thanks for posting this!

  5. Oh my goodness this post has two of my fav foods....ho fun noodles and dumplings!
    Arg I wish I knew about Ding Tai Fung when I went back home to Toronto for the Holidays. But now I have something to look forward to next visit! :D xoxo, Phoebe

  6. yum! looking at these pictures makes me so hungry!

  7. So far the best XLB I've had has been at Joe's Shanghai in NYC - and you're right, it's hard to find good ones. The ones you've pictured above have me drooling!

  8. I've only tried the DTF in Toronto and I loveee that place! It's almost 12AM now and you're making me crave XLB.

  9. Is the dumpling king the one on taraval and 30th? I love that place. I also love the peony in downtown Oakland.

    1. SDK is on Balboa KOD is on Taraval. I personally favor SDK, but the food at KOD is pretty good!

  10. Gosh! You're killing me with all your food posts =) They look incredibly yummy. I am noting all this down for our next trip to SF. Enjoy your week, S!

  11. Amen sister! Great XLB is sooooooooooooo hard to find. The thinness of the skin is so key!! At first, you have to wait for the soup to cool, otherwise get ready to get tongue burn. Ouch. Haha. Gotta try out different store brands too, we've found. There's this "chain" in NY. The one in Chinatown is to die for, the one in Flushing not so good. Anyways, the "long" is for basket :). And don't forget the sauce. When I'm at home, I cut up fresh ginger, and mix it with vinegar and low sodium soy sauce. I love the bite of ginger with the sweet/salty of the soup bao.So hungry right now.

  12. my GOODNESS this looks ridiculously delicious! i am loving these food posts. while i just finished my healthy and nowhere near as exciting lunch, i can literally smell the dumplings. the skin is so important. i hate those thick ones (that's when i cheat and just eat the centre).

    hope you had a great weekend dear S! xox P

  13. This looks amazing. Love your blog!

    If you get a sec, check out my latest post on my blog.


  14. I can't tell you how much I loved this post! Nick and I are always on the quest for XLB and must've tried all the places in Boston and most in NYC / flushing. None of them even compare to DTF so far, so I'm more than eager to try this shanghai dumpling place : ) There's this one place in Boston called Gourmet Dumpling House that is "famous" and always has a long wait...the soup dumplings are downright mediocre and half of the skins are already ripped with soup spilled out when the order arrives. Little do ppl know what else is out there. You've outlined the criteria thin skin that doesn't break and a good sip-ful of flavorful broth too much to ask for?

  15. This post totally made me drool. I LOVE Xiaolongbaos (and I'm pretty sure it's the character for basket, as in the bamboo steamer they steam them in, not for dragon). I lived in Taiwan for two years when I was little, and we lived super close to the original DTF, and it was my grandma's favorite restaurant so we'd go there at least once a month. It was awesome because it's next door to my favorite bookstore so even though there was a 40 min wait, my sister and I would just go browse comics and stationary at the bookstore next door while the grown ups waited. I went back recently and they've completely expanded the restaurant and it's so clean and fancy now. Back then it was pretty much a hole in the wall!

    The Seattle/Bellevue DTF is super close by to us now (15 min?), but I've only been there a few times. Still love it though. No other restaurants I've been to have paralleled DTF, though some of the frozen ones are pretty decent substitutes :)

  16. Aaw man I am so hungry now, we love ordering the beef ho fun when we go to Chinese Restaurant, I always thought it was called chow fun lol

    Great tips, definitely have to check it out if we ever travel

  17. Holy cow. Im glad you posted this. I have been on a hunt for the best XLB for 2 years, but I just recently stopped due to change in diet. Shianghai Dumpling King was on my list but I never got to it. From your review, it looks like it lives up to the hype. In SF, I like the XLB's at Yang Sing (pricey but delicious). Down here in San jose, I have yet to find a place worthy of mentioning, but in Milpitas there's a place called My Dumplings that's great. My all-time fave is Joe's Shainghai in New York. The Ding Tai Fung location in Socal is good too.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! You should definitely try SDK if you ever decide to back to trying XLBs :)

  18. Love this post. I like XLB so much, SO & I went to the one in Tokyo every week! Even though it was expensive(because of location I guess), we LOVED it so much. I've dreamed going back there. I cannot find one in DC area, which made me crave for XLB so much. I'll go to the place you recommended when I am there!

  19. Hi! My first time on your blog and I'm just scrolling through your posts! Have you tried Shanghai Dumpling Shop in Millbrae? I like their XLB.

    I love the pork and cabbage dumplings at KOD on Taravel. Did you know that you can buy KOD dumplings frozen at their Noriega location? It's just a retail store I believe, but you can bring them home with you frozen!

    1. Hi Lily :) I haven't tried the Shanghai Dumpling Shop, but def will now! I heart XLB! Thanks for the info!

    2. If you go there, you have to try their pan fried nian gao with preserved veggies and pork! SO good! Happy eats!

  20. Oops, it said my name was unknown. I'm Lily!


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