When I hear about a new Shanghainese place with possibly worthwhile xiaolong bao, I gotta go if I can get there. Since I am of the Idle Retired class, it was easy enough for me to hop on BART to downtown Millbrae for lunch today.
Yi He Garden (Yi He Yuan) is the latest in a growing collection of Shanghainese xiao chi/xiao cai (snacks/small plates) restaurants in the mid-peninsula area. Locate in downtown Millbrae in the former Jumbo Seafood location, it is a typically tidy smallish Millbrae/Burlingame kind of place. Though the name (which literally means "Summer Palace") might evoke Beijing, it plays up its Shanghai slant with an Old Shanghai calender girl picture on the cover of its menu and period recordings by my fave Zhou Xuan and other chanteuses of the era playing in the background. Nice touches, but could it walk the walk? With a couple of lunchtime noshes I had there today, it was (to be kind) taking baby steps.
The xiaolong bao orders at Yi He Garden come in two sizes -- steamers of five or ten baozi. I ordered a small order of the standard pork and the "crab paste" version, as well as another of my test items, congyou bing (scallion pancakes). Neither salty doujiang nor shengjian bao, my other two fetishes, could be found on the menu.
The only virtue I could find in the xiaolong bao was a thin skin. Both the pork and the crab versions (which, in fact, were almost indistinguishable from each other) were overly large, had ample but peculiar-tasting "soup" and were very stingy withe the solid fillings. They were so flaccid that you had to lift them by the topknot, and dangle them droopily scrotum-like from the chopsticks. Another problem was that they had a tendency to stick to the paper liner of the steamer; more than one broke while trying to detach it from the liner. The soup inside was thin and strangely sweet and tart at the same time; the sweetness was not uncharacteristic of XLB, but the sourness certainly was. There was no need, really to even dip them in the vinegar provided, and the ocean of sweet-sour liquid pretty much drowned out any separate taste the solid filling had.
If the xiaolong bao were disappointing, the congyou bing was even more so. The serving size was two disc-shaped pancakes, quartered, which separated when you lifted them like the two sides of a pita bread, revealing a bit of mashed scallion in between. They seemed to lampoon the platonic ideal (crispy on the outside, soft on the inside) by being hard and brittle on the outside and gooey on the inside. The predominant flavor was, shall we say, "skillet breath."
I should make a disclaimer here that these are just the opinions of a crochety old man on a couple of lunch items he happens to be particular about, and should not reflect on the rest of the lengthy menu of soups, noodles, and small plates, which deserve a vetting by persons who spend time in the area. The restaurant staff were all so friendly, efficient, and almost worriedly anxious to please it's painful to divulge my honest thoughts, but such is the chowing life.
Yi He Garden
420 Broadway (former Jumbo location)
Millbrae, CA 94030