April 7 is Xiaolong Bao Day, by my own proclamation, commemorating my 1992 xiaolong bao epiphany at the very Shrine of Xiaolong Bao in Shanghai. A planned trip to Shanghai for early April to got postponed, so I decided to make a Xiaolong Bao Week out of it anyway here in the Bay Area. All told I hit seven places for XLB over nine days including two weekends, with a break for Opening Day (no XLB at AT&T Park yet) and one other day when some small emergencies took up my time. All of the seven were in San Francisco except for Shanghai Restaurant in Oakland. All were solo lunchtime visits, around 1:00 PM in approximately the same state of hunger, and featured only xiaolong bao accompanied by salty soymilk soup (xian doujiang) where available and one usually one other snack item. Four were places I had been in the past, and three were new.
I should explain I have an idée fixe about xiaolong bao that might correspond to what others are looking for in XLB, particularly those who have cut their XLB teeth at Joes Shanghai in New York and its growing legion of imitators. I usually go for conventional pork XLB, for which there is a Platonic Ideal and gold standard, IMHO. What I look for are:
Size and shape Compact, with a base between a quarter and 50-cent piece in diameter, tautly stuffed, and teminating in a pointed peak on top, not a spout. The larger, looser variety with a foreskin closure (which Ill dub Type II) are sometimes found in crab XLB in Shanghai, with the spout stuffed with crab roe, but are almost never found in the regular pork variety, though that seems to have caught on outside of China, even at righteously Shagnhainese restaurants like Old Shanghai.
Flavor Difficulty to describe, but it should be deep and rich from the soup stock (properly made from pork skin, lean pork, chicken and ham) as well as the aspic delivery medium. The soup should also be salty and have a bit of sesame oil snap.
Texture The filling should be firm but neither overly chewy or mushy, and the wrappers seemingly impossibly melt-in-the mouth delicate for their role.
Here are my observations, in order of visitation:
Go Go Café (Duo Duo Meishi)
830 Irving St
San Francisco, CA 94122
I was drawn to this place by the sight of a good-looking thousand-layer pancake someone had gotten for takeout from Go Go, and by their impressive Shanghainese dim sum menu listing. Unfortunately, they didnt seem to have a clue as to XLB, coming up with a filling that was bland, flavorless, mealy in texture and almost soupless in an flabby but chewy wrapper. The savory soy milk I had with my meal was also a timid version, with the soymilk barely curdled and lacking in both saltiness and spiciness, but became edible with some salt and white pepper added. The onion pancake was the best of the three thins I ordered, though it was a thin single layer well studded with scallions, rather than the thicker layered version I prefer. Go Go Café has a broad menu and seems popular for the $5.95 whole soft-shell crab, so it might be worth checking our for some of the other items.
Old Shanghai (Lao Shanghai)
5145 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94118
I was happy to make my first visit to Old Shanghai in 10 years the second stop on my XLB tour, fully expecting a better XLB experience. Im also a softie for places where the music of the crispy Shanghainese language fills the air. The XLB didnt disappoint me, but didnt entirely thrill me either. I was somewhat chagrined that Old Shanghai has gone over to the oversized Type II wrappers (the hip-hop pants of XLB-dom?) though they allowed for a greater quantity of excellently savory soup. The wrappers were overly tough, I felt (it actually enabled them to be steamed in an unlined basket) and the meat filling also seemed a bit too chewy. The xian doujiang I ordered as an accompaniment was an excellent version, though it lacked the usually complimentary small slices of you tiao in it. A whole you tiao at $2.25 would have been far more than I wanted. The scallion pancake here was also the best I had on the tour.
Tian Sing (Tian Cheng)
138 Cyril Magnin St.
San Francisco CA 94102
I posted previously on my visit here, which was out of curiosity and not really for the xiaolong bao. Im in the dont order xiaolong bao at a Cantonese dim sum place faction, and was going to exempt the XLB from rating, but since it didnt finish last I will toss it into my rankings anyway. The main complaint (other than the blasted uncircumcised Type II wrapper) was the soup had little flavoring to it. Overall, however, I think Tian Sing fills an important niche, location-wise, and as an alternative to Yank Sing for visitors who want dim sum downtown (with carts yes).
The Pot Sticker (Jing Hu)
50 Waverly Place
San Francisco, CA 94108
The Pot Sticker is a place I want to like, given that its practically in my neighborhood and has an impressive lineup of northern-style dim sum on the menu. Its dim sum chef seems to specialize in making things that look great on the plate but are almost flavorless and characterless once you bite into them. About the only thing right about the XLB at The Pot Sticker is the size and orthodox wrapper; the filling was bland and chewy, and very little soup was delivered. In the past I wondered if they used the same filling for their pot stickers as for the XLB, and I found myself with the same thoughts. I avoided the soy milk soup, since the waiter advised me it was no good but had the scallion pancake. The scallion pancake is one of the few things they do really well, almost as well as Old Shanghai. Oh well, Ill drop in again in another couple of years and hope things have improved.
Xiao Loong (Xiao Long)
250 West Portal Ave.
San Francisco 94127
Xiao Loong (other than the fact it was a total mystery to me) seduced me with its name, which seemed to be a challenge (never mind that the long means dragon and not steamer). Its in West Portal, and I walked in with my eyes open, fully expecting a West Portal gotcha! (WP is like a small suburban town plunked down in the middle of San Francisco, and I never expect to find great food there.) The place and the creditable XLB were a pleasant surprise, however. They were quite similar to Old Shanghais version, though perhaps a bit less savory in the souping and if anything a bit larger in size. They also steamed them on a base of greens, but lost points for only having WHITE vinegar available to dip them in. They had no soybean milk soup or scallion pancakes, so I ordered a bowl of hot-sour soup which turned out to be excellent, chock-full of fresh shrimp, tofu and donggu mushrooms. It wasnt as hot or as sour as I expected, though I didnt expect that it would be (as Oliver Gogarty might have said), but H&S is infinitely adjustable via the condiments of the table). I expected something a little more fusion-y in Xiao Loong, but its really more upscale Chinese in intent, with a limited menu but some obvious talent in the kitchen. Its probably worth a try for some main dishes.
Shanghai Restaurant (Shanghai Xiao Chi)
930 Webster St
Oakland, CA 94607-4222
I got to Shanghai Restaurant for the good stuff, after some fair-to-middling and almost-there versions of xiaolong bao and ordered two longs because they are small and come only 6 to a steamer. I wasnt disappointed, and recent visits and recent reports by others left little of a mystery. Size and Shape? Check. Wrapper? Check. Filling? Check. Soup? Check. Roger, over and out, out the door purring with a belly full of xiaolong bao and xian doujiang. The world was not out of kilter.
Shanghai Dumpling King (Bao Jiao Dian)
830 Irving St
San Francisco, CA 94122
I had pretty much given up on Shanghai Dumpling King after discovering Shanghai (Oakland) and was not prepared for what greeted me there. On this day, everything that was good about Shanghai Oaklands xiaolong bao was better at Shanghai Dumpling King (and when did they add the King to the name, anyway?) The wrappers were perfectly sized and perfectly tender. Ive previously expounded my view that if one in eight wrappers doesnt burst in transit between steamer and lips, they arent pushing the envelope on tenderness enough. As if on cue, the wrapper on dumpling #5 burst as I was lifting it. The soup was even more intensely savory at the Kings than at Shanghai Xiao Chi, and equally, if not more, plentiful, and the meat filling had just the right amount of bite. The fact that they are 10 to the steamer for $4.95 is frosting on the cake, er, vinegar on the baozi. It must be said that the accompanying dishes were less than satisfactory; the savory doujiang was not salty enough (and there was no salt shaker in the condiment tray) served lukewarm, and the pieces of you tiao in it were seriously stale. The mock goose I ordered was overly dry and chewy. But as for the xiaolong bao, Id say the pendulum has swung back to this side of the bay.
My overall rankings for the weeks tour:
1. Shanghai Dumpling King
2. Shanghai Restaurant
3. Old Shanghai
4. Xiao Loong
5. Tian Sing
6. The Pot Sticker
7. Go Go Cafe