I recently wrapped up a 30-day visit to Shanghai in which I couldn’t resist repeated indulgence in my passion for xiao long bao. I didn’t consciously plan a systematic review of the state of the dumpling art, but there were XLB vendors of repute that I had to track down simply because I knew they were there, and there were other places I stumbled across that I couldn’t turn away from without vetting. All told, I had xiao long bao at least 15 times, at 12 different venues. If you are wondering where Din Tai Fung is in all of this, I have discussed my reaction to DTF in the past in this and other forums; in a nutshell, I found DTF’s XLB to be very good, roughly the equal to Jia Jia Tang Bao’s, but so grossly over-priced by local standards that I found no reason to return to DTF on this trip.
Here is my October, 2008, Shanghai xiao long bao report card:
De Long Guan -- Jiangxi Lu
De Long Guan made its way to the head of the class by shamelessly pandering to my memories of my first xiao long bao 16 years earlier. This Proustian feat was described in an earlier post:
Jia Jia Tang Bao -- Huanghe Lu
Jia Jia Tang Bao -- Liyuan Lu
Despite my preference for De Long Guan's evocative product, Jia Jia Tang Bao must still be considered the King of Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai, because the former's smallness of scale and its somewhat daunting premises make it unlkely to assume the role of a destination restaurant. Jia Jia, on the other hand, has its small red-hatted armies of ingenues well trained to turn out sizeable quantities of baozi with the speed and precision of DTF's operating theater personnel.
The xiao long bao at Jia Jia are of uniformly thin skin, carefully wrapped and filled with solid and "soup" fillings of complexity, consistency and flavor. I didn't detect a whit of difference between the two locations of Jia Jia, or between their current locations and the former location on Yunnan Nan Lu (even more forbidding a facility than De Long Guan's).
Long Pao Xie Huang Xiao Long (Qibao)
Nanjing Tang Bao (Shouning Lu)
Shang Wei Guan (Xingshan Lu)
Of these three, Shang Wei Guan was the most frustrating. It had been given the highest rating for taste by dianping.com reviewers of any XLB specialist that had a significant number of reviews, and was the hardest for me to track down, which I did on my last day in Shanghai. The XLB had amazingly thin wrappers, the thinnest I have encountered in years, but they were a bit sloppy in construction, and also tossed casually in the steamer so that they were randomly scattered in the long rather than than nicely arranged (one was actually lying on its side). Even so, I would have ranked them higher if the soup had had the intensity of De Long Guan’s. Long Pao Xie Huang Xiao Long in Qibao (on the Qibao Old Street) and Nanjing Tang Bao on Shouning Lu (a pretty good little food street itself) were two I stumbled across. They both came close to Jia Jia perfection, failing primarily in the flavor density of the broth.
Fu Chun Xiao Long (Yuyuan Lu)
Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian (3rd Fl.)
Shanghai Lao Chen Huang Miao (Haichao Lu)
Yi Pin Guang Tang Bao (Guangyuan Lu)
90 Duolun Lu Tea House
Fu Chun Xiao Long also was something of a disappointment, primarily because of my expectations; it had been mentioned in the same breath as Jia Jia Tang Bao and De Long Guan in a 2007 “Best of” listing by dianping.com but it fell short of the other two, in my estimation. In particular, the wrappers were not only thick, but constructed with blow-holes on top, like the version the Taiwanese used to make and top off with a pea.
For the Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian (or whatever it’s called these days) this was the first time I’d tried the third floor XLB, though I have noted elsewhere that the second floor and the ground floor takeout XLB have fallen far from the pinnacle of excellence of the Nanxiang’s heyday. I had heard various reports on whether the third floor XLB were better than downstairs, and I found that they seemed to be a bit fresher, but with little other discernible difference. This may be due to the fact that the third floor has its own production crew and facility, while the other two levels get theirs mass produced in the highly visible ground floor kitchen, where the stockpiling is obvious to anyone who has stood in the takeout line.
Shanghai Lao Cheng Huang Miao is a chain of restaurants featuring Shanghai small eats; there happened to be a branch within short walking distance of my hotel so I was able to enjoy passable XLB for breakfast at will. They were not, however, of destination quality.
Yi Pin Guan Tang Bao is a venue I discovered when I was giving some visiting friends a walking tour of the French Concession area and they expressed a desire to try xiao long bao. Following my instincts, I left Hengshan Lu and wandered in the direction of Jiaotong University and sure enough, found Yi Pin steaming XLB on the street. They were great if you are there and hungry, but, like Lao Cheng Huang Miao’s, not something to go out of your way for.
“C” is probably a generous rating for the XLB at the tea house at 90 Duolun Lu (I never caught the actual name). They were oversized and bland, but came as an accompaniment to a lovely glass of longjing tea and I can’t think of a nobler role for xiao long bao.
De Xing Guan -- Zhongshan Xi Lu
De Xing Guan’s xiao long bao are not orthodox xiao long bao, being oversized and of a different, though satisfying flavor in the filling. De Xing Guan has been around and revered for its tasty food for so long that event though what they dish out is, for lack of a better description, tantamount to a Shanghai version of a New York soup dumpling a la Joe’s Shanghai, they can call it anything they want.