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Sampling New York Xiaolong Bao


Gary Soup
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On a 2-1/2 day visit to New York last week, I had a Quixotic plan to sample the xiaolong bao at up to four different restaurants. Of course, my schedule and logistics limited my ambitions, but I managed to get to two.

I settled on Moon House in my sole half-day in Chinatown. I had narrowed my list to either MH or Yeah Shanghai Deluxe, and Moon House appeared, on first glance, to be a little closer to the bone.

The ambience of Moon House did not disappoint, as it had the look and feel of a family-run-hole-in-the-wall in any Shanghai neighborhood. All of the staff, and most of the customers, spoke the staccato and melodious central Shanghai dialect. I was also delighted by the fact that, as in the very shrine of xiaolong bao in Shanghai, the food arrived by dumbwaiter from the nether regions of the shop. I also had a chuckle when when the counter girl muttered some salty curses in Shanghainese at the dilatory unseen cook downstairs who was slow in producing a takeout order. (Her outburst also reminded me how much I was already missing my wife, who did not make the trip with me.)

Unfortunately, the verisimilitude ended where the food began. The xiaolong bao were in the Joe's Shanghai mold of being overly large, and well-souped but with a broth that was lacking in intensity of flavor. Worse, the wrapper was thick and way too chewy, as if it had been prepared too far in advance. The accompanying congyou bing (scallion pancakes) I ordered were also a miscarriage, being thick, not layered, and translucently soggy, as if they had been been deep fried instead of shallow fried. Unaccountably, salty soy milk soup was not on the menu (or available off the menu, for that matter) and I had to make do with an uninteresting and bland soup of bean thread vermicelli in a broth with small fragments of youtiao (fried bread).

One positive note, in addition to the ambience: the xiaolong bao were $3.95 for eight, which should buy them a little forgiveness.

My second xiaolong bao experience on this trip was as an appetizer at M Shanghai, which was not on my original list, but was a last minute inspiration for dinner when we planned to be in Williamsburg.

M Shanghai turned out to be a pleasant surprise, probably due to my low expectations. The reviews in the press and the trendy locale seemed to whisper "fusion" (the "f"-word, in my lexicon). It turned out, however, to be not so much "fusion" (probably not enough exotic California veggies at hand) but a lightened-up take on a cuisine similar to what I imagine girth-conscious "modern" Shanghainese are partaking of somewhere at this very moment. There was not a red-cooked pig trotter or a "Su Dongpo" pork-belly in sight.

The xiaolong bao at M Shanghai, all things considered, were the best I have experienced in New York to date. The wrappers, though slightly larger and not quite as tightly constructed as xiaolaong bao orthodoxy dictates, were almost of the requisite melt-in-the-moth tenderness, and the "soup" had a desirable intensity of flavor, though a little on the sweet side for my taste. After the fact, it occurred to me that the xiaolong bao at M Shanghai were almost dead ringers for the ones served in Wuxi, notable for the sweetness of its cuisine.

We also ordered niangao (stir-fried Shanghai rice pasta), which was a good version but cooked a little too soft; morning glory with tea sauce, a breaded chicken with chestnuts dish, and Salmon with tofu. The latter three were all new to me, but skillfully cooked and well-flavored despite a total lack of the necessary condiments of fat, bone, and gristle mandated in truly authentic Shanghai cuisine.

I also had an amusing contretemps with our obstinate waiter, who opined that we had ordered too many dishes for three people, and suggested we cancel the stir-fried rice cakes, "since we would be getting the complimentary steamed rice anyway." It was a suggestion that only a non-Shanghainese would make, to be sure. I insisted on the niangao (we canceled another dish) and informed him that we didn't need to eat the rice simply because it came free. He later brought the niangao simultaneously with two bowls of rice for the three of us and placed the order of niangao directly beside my plate.

For the record, other meals which diverted me from my xiaolong bao quest included take-out Cubanos for the A's game at Yanqui Stadium, lunch with my daughter at the Conde Nast building cafeteria (located on the same floor as the offices for both Gourmet and Bon Appetit, hmmmm...) and a decent breakfast at Cafe Henri in Long Island City, which would have tasted better if the place were called Cafe Ennui, as I first misheard.

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Thanks for the report, Gary.

For those of us not in the know, what are xiaolong bao? Is there a more common English name by which we might know them? Also, what are the characteristics of first-rate xiaolong bao we should be looking for?

--

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Soup Dumplings aka juicy buns.

I have never really given M. Shanghai much of a chance. It's more known for the hipster lounge downstairs (and the hip hop karaoke night they have) than for the food. As it and Snacky on Grand St. are the only decent Chinese options in the WB, maybe it's time to revisit.

"If it's me and your granny on bongos, then it's a Fall gig'' -- Mark E. Smith

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Thanks for the report, Gary.

For those of us not in the know, what are xiaolong bao?  Is there a more common English name by which we might know them?  Also, what are the characteristics of first-rate xiaolong bao we should be looking for?

Sorry, xiaolong bao are akin to what New Yorkers usually call soup dumplings. They can be seen as a subset of soup dumplings, though I tend to think of xiaolong bao as a model and other soup dumplings as variants. "traditional" xiaolong bao are smallish, with a base no bigger than a 50-cent piece (for those of you old enough to remember those) and sometimes smaller.

Xiaolong bao definitely has a paradigm, those served at the Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian in Shanghai. It's the place that put XLB on the map, the place where most Shanghai families brave the crowds to make a pilgrimage to at least once a year, and the place where I had my xiaolong bao "epiphany" 12 years ago and return to every time I'm in Shanghai.

Key features, based on my own observations and memories:

The wrapper -- so delicate it virtually melts in your mouth. My rule of thumb is that is that at least one in 10 should burst prematurely when you're lifting the dumpling with your chopsticks, or they are making the dough too tough.

The "soup" -- a MODEST amount of intensely rich-tasting broth, not as much as I suspect some people expect. Its base is traditionally an aspic made from rendered pork skin, which doesn't liquify until the baozi are steamed.

The filling -- ground pork, with seasonings. Traditional XLB always have pork fillings, though variants may include shrimp, dazha crab, etc. but are so identified and often called something else (sometimes tang bao, "soup dumplings").

The taste -- that's the hard part, I'm still sleuthing the ingredients, don't know if I've pinned them all down. Always a certain tanginess (maybe a drop of sesame oil) and a definite saltiness that goes with the richness of the broth.

It's a very labor-intensive specialty item (always 16 pleats in the wrapper, for example). XLB also have a very short half-life and should be steamed (or flash-frozen) immediately after assembly, or the wrapper will dry out. For these reasons, you should probably only expect decent xiaolong bao at a time (brunch/lunch) when there might be an active production process going on.

xlb00.jpg

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When I come to New York later this year, will I be able to find non-pork xiao long bao/any other dumplings/buns et al there in Chinatown?

I can't answer that, but I think I recall seing halal Chinese food in Flushing. Downtown Flushing is New York's second Chinatown, and worth checking out, too. It's very easy to get to, just take the #7 Subway from Times Square or Grand Central Station all the way to the end of the line, and you're in the heart of it when you emerge from the station.

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Gary:

I'm going to have to both add a bit to Jason's comment and side with him.

For soup dumplings that fit your description, you really would do better in New Jersey than in NYC - both major centers of Chinese food activity here (along Route 46 near the GW Bridge and on Route 27 North of New Brunswick) have major Shanghai orientations.

Surely, if soup dumplings are the only goal, Shanghai Park in Highland Park, NJ - where they aren't even made until after you order them and Shanghai dialect is the only language spoken - would be a stop. So would Jason's fave, China 46; a fine restaurant with a strong Shanghai slant to its cooking.

The only problem is getting here. Yes, those of us who live in New Jersey have no problem getting in our cars and heading wherever the good stuff is, but is it worth it for a person who also regularly visits Shanghai and San Francisco and only has a few days in the Big Apple? My answer would have to be "no."

Brian Yarvin

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When I come to New York later this year, will I be able to find non-pork xiao long bao/any other dumplings/buns et al there in Chinatown?

I can't answer that, but I think I recall seing halal Chinese food in Flushing. Downtown Flushing is New York's second Chinatown, and worth checking out, too. It's very easy to get to, just take the #7 Subway from Times Square or Grand Central Station all the way to the end of the line, and you're in the heart of it when you emerge from the station.

Thanks, Gary...will try to do that.

Do you eat seafood? There's crab xiao long bao.

-Pat

Yes, I love seafood and crab xlb sounds great. Do you know where I can find them?

Yetty CintaS

I am spaghetttti

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I visited China 46 based on the recs from the NJ Board and I was very disappointed. All of the NYC spots that are favored here beat the crap out of China 46. The dumplings at 46 were stuffed with a dense filling and the broth was weak and watery sort of like a lipton cup of soup.

I was on my way to Newark and I passed up going for Portuguese BBQ for some soup dumplings. Boy did I make a mistake.

In all fairness to 46, I have to say that I was alone so all I ordered were the bao but other tables did have items that looked very good.

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I visited China 46 based on the recs from the NJ Board and I was very disappointed. All of the NYC spots that are favored here beat the crap out of China 46. The dumplings at 46 were stuffed with a dense filling and the broth was weak and watery sort of like a lipton cup of soup.

I was on my way to Newark and I passed up going for Portuguese BBQ for some soup dumplings. Boy did I make a mistake.

In all fairness to 46, I have to say that I was alone so all I ordered were the bao but other tables did have items that looked very good.

You must have gotten a bad batch, because there is no way I would classify China 46's XLB as watery, bad, or even lipton like.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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Sorry Spaghetti, I was mistaken it is a crab meat & pork mix XLB at  New Green bo , Goody's on 1 east broadway ,  Joe's shanghai , and Shanghai Gourmet in Chinatown.

I was wondering about that myself, because often "crab" xiaolong tang bao is a mixture of crab and pork.

There's one place in SF that makes all-crab xiaolong bao, but you have to order a day ahead and get a monster-sized order because they do in a whole dungeness crab for your order.

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Sorry Spaghetti, I was mistaken it is a crab meat & pork mix XLB at  New Green bo , Goody's on 1 east broadway ,  Joe's shanghai , and Shanghai Gourmet in Chinatown.

I was wondering about that myself, because often "crab" xiaolong tang bao is a mixture of crab and pork.

There's one place in SF that makes all-crab xiaolong bao, but you have to order a day ahead and get a monster-sized order because they do in a whole dungeness crab for your order.

Oh -- a crab & pork mix, huh? That's too bad, but I'm sure there'll be something else equally delicious while I'm there. Chinatown seems to be the first place our family hits when we get to New York; and we have a lot of fun going to all our favorite places for snacks and wonderful nostalgia.

Sadly, it doesn't look like we'll be on the Left Coast this trip though. Hopefully next time, to try those all-crab xiao long bao. Gary, I may have to ask you for the address in San Francisco when the time comes, ok?

Edited by spaghetttti (log)

Yetty CintaS

I am spaghetttti

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Sadly, it doesn't look like we'll be on the Left Coast  this trip though. Hopefully next time, to try those all-crab xiao long bao.  Gary, I may have to ask you for the address in San Francisco when the time comes, ok?

It's no secret, it's Shanghai Dumpling Shop on Balboa & 34th. (I can give you directions when you are ready).

I'm planning to take my NYC daughter there next week when she visits (getting out of town during the Republican convention). I think I'll check to see if the crab dumplings are available now, or only during Dungeness season locally. Dungeness crab is alway available, but this time of year it's brought in from further north, and kept in tanks (sometimes too long).

Edited by Gary Soup (log)
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I've never had Xiaoplong Bao in rapid sucession at New Green Bo, Moon House and Yeah Shanghai, so a comparison is hard to make, but I think I'd recommend those at Yeah over the other two. I seem to recall them being referred to as something closer to shao laun bao on menus.

Robert Buxbaum

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Oh -- a crab & pork mix, huh? That's too bad, but I'm sure there'll be something else equally delicious while I'm there.

Yes, there is something missing. People never mentioned one of the most important ingredients---Pure Fat. I mean Pig's Fat.

When I study culinary art in China and even here, all chefs believe the principle No. 1 for make all kind of dumplings, pasta, ravioli, etc.

"The more fat you put in, the better taste you got!!"

"All the way to heaven is heaven."

___Said by St. Catherine of Sienna.

Let's enjoy life, now!

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Yes, there is something missing. People never mentioned one of the most important ingredients---Pure Fat. I mean Pig's Fat.

When I study culinary art in China and even here, all chefs believe the principle No. 1 for make all kind of dumplings, pasta, ravioli, etc.

"The more fat you put in, the better taste you got!!"

Qing, oh my gosh!!! Thank you for that very important information. It had never occurred to me that that the pastry would contain fat, lard, whatever. So, what you're saying is -- even if I have a vegetable or non-pork dumpling, that the silky wrapping is so delicious because it's made with pork fat?!!! Y I K E S ! ! ! am I destined to no more dumplings at all now? :shock:

Yetty CintaS

I am spaghetttti

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Yetty, you could always go to a vegetarian restaurant. I don't know how good they are, but surely, they don't use any animal fat in their cooking. Otherwise, you could always ask if any pork or pork fat was used and decide whether to take "no" (if given) for an answer. My mother doesn't eat pig and we asked "you mei you zhu rou" ("is there pork") a lot in China. I think they were truthful with us, sometimes saying "yi diar" ("a little").

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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