The Eternal Search for Xiao Long Bao: Shanghai Dumpling King
Edited to add on 3/17/2011:
My friend just called me to inform me of the following, “This place sucked! I have never been so disappointed! The Shanghai dumplings look nothing like what you posted and everything we ordered was undercooked or overcooked and gross!”
Per reviews on Yelp, this place is under new ownership as of a few days ago — with a new chef! With this new turn of events, chances are likely my review below is no longer applicable. Please be aware of this prior to visiting!
I have never been to Shanghai, so off the bat, let me throw this disclaimer out there: I am not absolutely certain that my ideal “Xiao Long Bao” (Shanghai Dumplings) is the world’s best Xiao Long Bao, or if it’s what someone from Shanghai would say is even comparable.
What I do know, though, is good taste, and I know that the Shanghai Dumplings at Yank Sing would be up there on what I would choose as my last meal. I also know that if you eat at Yank Sing more than twice a year, the thought of getting a second mortgage starts to enter your head. Let’s put it this way: two people with good appetites will easily surpass $100 for a lunch eating dim sum. Dim sum — you know, the supposedly cheap chinese brunch/lunch oily goodness?
While I still ate at Yank Sing entirely too many times, I’ve decided that it’s just not worth it. Surely, somewhere within driving distance of San Francisco is some place that serves up decent Shanghai Dumplings, right?
I have searched, and searched.
I have tried Shanghai Kitchen, Kingdom of Shanghai Dumplings, Koi Palace, and a variety of other places that reportedly serve up Xiao Long Bao. Some were decent, others were inedible — none even held a flicker of a candle to the dumplings at Yank Sing.
Every time I have gone on this tirade around foodies, some person would mention “Shanghai Dumpling King”. (In fact, this is how I ended up at Kingdom of Shanghai Dumplings — because I got confused about the name!) After over a year of hearing about it, I finally ended up trying Shanghai Dumpling King.
Over the course of time, my hope for finding anything equal to Yank Sing had faded. Walking in, what I said was this: “If this place’s dumplings are even 80% as good as Yank Sing’s — I will not complain and just come here to get my Xiao Long Bao fix from here on.”
Walking in, you see exactly 3 tables, much to your horror. I mean, I have known some small restaurants, but three tables? Then, you notice that there’s a little gap to the unit next door which leads to another eight or so tables. For reasons unknown to me at the time, the waitstaff told us to wait despite having nearly all of the tables empty — and then, we were led back to the only available two-person table by the bathroom.
I don’t think so.
We asked to be moved, and one server moved us to a four-top, but then another server asked if we’d move to a two-top table that had just emptied out. While I agreed, I thought to myself that this was ridiculous — and that while it was only 5:15 P.M. — this place had better be packed by the time I was halfway through my meal to justify the musical chairs they were playing with me.
They gave us our tea, and took our order. We also asked for two diet cokes with ice in a cup. This, however, was a problem in that the restaurant apparently has no ice. Now I have been to a lot of different types of restaurants, but seriously — I have never been to one that had no ice.
First up was the Lion’s Head Casserole. For $9.95, the portion was very generous, enough to satiate two adults with a side order of rice. The meat was tender and oily, as it should be, but was notably bland. We used the hot sauce and soy sauce to season it up a bit, and then it was quite tasty with the rice. I was not a big fan of the soup; while it had flavor, it was a bit on the thicker side with the clear noodles and cabbage, and something about it was not sitting well with me. I did eat a whole meatball by myself. This dish should ideally be shared by three people — one ball per person.
Next up, Shanghai Noodles for $5.50. I rather like thick noodles, and I was looking forward to this dish, but it was one of those dishes that lost appeal with each bite. For the first bite, I thought, “Hmm, it’s really quite delicious!” and by the second bite, it was a little less so. By the fifth bite, I was altogether unimpressed. While the noodles were chewy, the sauce was bland and boring. Nothing about it really indicated it was fried; it tasted more like the noodles were boiled, then a sauce was stirred in to create the dish. Basically, it was like a hot girl with no personality at all.
We left most of it untouched, and continued eating the Lion’s Head Casserike when finally, after a good twenty minutes into the meal, the long-awaited Xiao Long Bao arrived.
It was a true sight to behold. The skin was delicate and thin; there was no evidence that any of them had popped and leaked out the juices I hope was still bubbling up inside.
With Shanghai Dumplings, I have four criteria that must be met:
1. Thin, delicate skin, which is where most restaurant fail.
2. Delicious pork filling.
3. A good amount of delicious soup inside.
4. It must be unbearably hot when served.
Shanghai Dumpling King had passed #1; the skin was almost as thin as Yank Sing’s, and I found myself hoping for what I had come to believe was impossible.
One bite of it, and it was like everything stopped while I chewed. “Hmm… not bad,” was my first statement, “Not bad at all.” The meat filling was a bit on the chunkier side of things with a slightly different texture than Yank Sing’s, but it was tasty. The soup was high in flavor, but it was thicker and “creamier”, for lack of a better word, than that of Yank Sing’s — much like watered-down maple syrup rather than pure thick broth, which is what I like. What it did not have, and thereby failed requisite number four, was piping hot heat. They were hotter than lukewarm, but not enough to make me regret putting it in my mouth. The problem is that if it’s not that hot, then these particular dumplings become less flavorful with slightly hardened skin, and — as described earlier — thickened soup. They were easier to pick up, but that in itself means it wasn’t that hot.
Also, strangely enough, there was no vinegar red sauce served with the dumplings (making note, again, that I really have no idea if Shanghai typically serves this with, or without red vinegar sauce). Instead, a soy sauce with a douse of vinegar was served. Without the vinegar, the pork flavor was too strong, and whatever ginger flavor you crave to balance out the fattiness of the pork was nonexistent.
Having said all that, it really wasn’t bad at all; in fact, it was really quite delicious. It didn’t quite make the “80% as good as Yank Sing” mark, but in my humble opinion, it reached about 70% as good. Factor in the fact that it costs about 30% of the cost of the Shanghai Dumplings at Yank Sing, which are $12.50 for six, whereas Shanghai Dumpling King offered ten for $5.50, and you have a homerun! (The photo of Yank Sing’s dumplings were taken from this blog. As you can see, the skin is truly delicate — and these ARE piping hot!)
So, would I go back?
YES. I’m surprised at my answer, but yes, I would go back, especially considering the savings. Sure, the remainder of the food was nothing to rejoice over, but these dumplings were indeed good. If I had never tried Yank Sing’s, I’d have been overjoyed.
But for Chinese cooking, I’d rather head to House of Chen to get the steamed dumplings and pan-fried noodles, or go for dim sum at Mayflower. The cooking at these places is significantly better than what Shanghai Dumpling King offers.
But then, Shanghai Dumpling King served up these Sugar Puff Pastries. I’m a pushover — what can I say?
These were just out of the oven, entirely too hot to the touch, covered in sugar, and all I could say was, “God must snack on this every chance He gets.” Do not miss this part if you try Shanghai Dumpling King!
Shanghai Dumpling King is located at 3314 Balboa between 34th and 35th Avenue. They appear to be open from 11 AM to 9 PM on weekdays, and begin dining service at 10 AM during the weekends. Lines are common here, and in case you’re curious — yes, they were at running at capacity when we left the restaurant at 6:00 PM, thereby making the initial musical tables they played with us completely reasonable.
Food: 8.6/10 for the Shanghai Dumplings; 5.5/10 for other dishes
Addictive Factor: 7/10
Overall Rating: 6.5/10