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The Search for SF's Best Soup Dumplings

Savory broth, porky filling, 18-pleated dough: What makes a revelatory xiao long bao?

 

Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

 

Anyone who has had a well-made soup dumpling knows that the process of eating it is magic. You swipe the delicate, neatly pleated little parcel through a bracing bit of black vinegar and ginger and then pop the whole thing into your mouth, releasing a gush of hot, savory broth and a tender pork meatball. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to play out—but it often doesn’t.

That’s because making a perfect soup dumpling, or xiao long bao, is another issue. The XLB, as it’s known, is a finicky little bastard. I learned that the hard way when my husband, Joe, and I opened Chino, our Mission restaurant featuring housemade soup dumplings. Even with our trip to Taipei to visit Din Tai Fung, the XLB holy grail, fresh in our minds—and despite the fact that Leo Gan, our Shanghainese dumpling chef, had been making soup dumplings for some 30 years—it still took about four months to wrangle ours into submission. In the early days, there were a myriad of problems: The pork was too lean, the dumpling skin too thick or too thin. And a soup dumpling without soup is a crying shame. 

Today, I’m happy to report, our dumplings are good (well, I think they are). Made with Marin Sun Farms pork shoulder and belly, they have a filling that dissolves into broth, and a thin, but not too thin, dough with the proper 18 pleats. Even so, we’re constantly looking to improve them.

To that end, fortified by my newfound reverence for makers of the XLB, I went on a quest to taste pretty much every soup dumpling in San Francisco proper. Although high-end restaurants like Hakkasan, Benu, and Yank Sing peddle “fancy” soup dumplings filled with things like Dungeness crab and kurobuta pork, I wanted to keep the playing field level, so I focused my research on the little mom-and-pops that have earned wide renown for their XLB. The sole exception was the opulent new Dragon Beaux, whose instant mega-lines piqued my curiosity. My criteria at each establishment were perfectly steamed dumplings with thin, supple wrappers enclosing a tender pork meatball and a decent amount of savory broth, served with a black-vinegar and sliced-ginger dipping sauce on the side. Given that I made but a single visit to each restaurant, it’s only fair to point out that the quality of any particular dumpling can change by the day. The biggest lesson I took from my odyssey? It is really, really hard to make a good XLB.

Kingdom of Dumpling (Parkside) 
Three stars
My favorite soup dumpling spot for years now, the Kingdom sells XLB frozen to go at its commissary down the street. On this visit, the in-house specimens were smaller and pointier than usual, making for a dough-heavy top. That said, the filling was good and porky-savory. Plus, the small space has been outfitted with cheery red-and-white-checked tablecloths, and the addictive orange chili sauce is the best in town. You cannot judge an XLB in a vacuum. 12 for $6.85; 1713 Taraval St.

Dumpling Kitchen (Parkside)
One and a half stars
Just down the street from Kingdom of Dumpling, this nondescript spot failed to provide the traditional black-vinegar and sliced-ginger dipping sauce, instead substituting a bottle of vinegar (though ginger is available on request). On my visit, the dumplings suffered from thin skins and soggy bottoms. The soup was there, but only minimally, and its flavor was muddled. 10 for $7.50; 1935 Taraval St.

Shanghai Dumpling King (Outer Richmond)
Two stars
This bright little barebones spot is one of the city’s most popular XLB destinations; in 2013, it spawned a second location in Sunnyside. It’s well managed (on the day that I visited, a chipper guy took advance orders from the line of customers standing outside), and its dumplings are big, though on my visit they suffered a bit from a thin, mushy skin and a filling that had an oddly sweet quality. Still, they were among the least expensive I sampled. The moral here? The nice (and cheap) guys often win. 10 for $6; 3319 Balboa St. 

Shanghai House (Outer Richmond)
Two stars
While Shanghai Dumpling King is cheap and cheerful, Shanghai House is run by a notoriously gloomy woman who air-drops chopsticks onto your table and delivers the food at a snail’s pace. When we finally received our dumplings, they had a nicely done wrapper filled with a good amount of broth, but the flavor was middling. If asked to choose, I’d opt for the good time and mediocre dumplings three blocks away at the King. 10 for $6.25; 3641 Balboa St.

Xiao Long Bao (Inner Richmond)
One star
Despite its name, this place is more of a dim sum to-go spot than a proper XLB shrine. My XLB were served in a plastic container, each one confined in a little foil cup. The flavor of the pork was very gingery, which I liked, but black vinegar wasn’t served as an accompaniment, and, trapped inside their container, the dumplings quickly became flaccid. 10 for $3.50; 625 Clement St.

Bund Shanghai (Chinatown)
Four stars
Decorated with little more than a strand of colored Christmas lights, this clean and practical place delivers a higher quality of food than many of the other spots I visited. Although the endless menu isn’t focused on dumplings, this is a Shanghainese restaurant, so they’re there if you look. And I was delighted to discover that they were great, with a nice, savory broth; good pork; and pretty wrappers that had integrity without being too thick. Bonus: Afterward, I got to step out into the colorful bustle of Chinatown. 8 for $6.95; 640 Jackson St.

Dim Sum Club (Van Ness)
Four stars
This off-the-radar joint opened last year in an odd space that functions as part of the Da Vinci Villa Hotel. Inside, it looks like a diner, with an assortment of red lanterns and a wall decorated with a scene of China. The friendly servers, all clad in bright orange polos, came bearing XLB endowed with shiny, almost taut wrappers; savory, aromatic pork; and good broth. In other words, they easily tied with Bund Shanghai’s as the best soup dumplings I ate on my journey. 6 for $6.50; 2550 Van Ness Ave.

Dragon Beaux (Outer Richmond)
Three stars
In late February, the people behind the popular Daly City restaurant Koi Palace debuted their first San Francisco venture. It achieved instant popularity, so expect a wait. The “juicy dumpling” comes steamed atop a carrot slice (used as a nonstick surface, it’s not for eating) that’s nestled in a diminutive soup spoon. It’s a pretty little thing with really good flavor, but during the restaurant’s first week of business (as good an excuse as any), it stuck to the spoon a bit and the broth spilled out—a reminder that the soup dumpling is a dependably fickle mistress. 4 for $5.68; 5700 Geary Blvd.

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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