When you hear that a former executive chef of Din Tai Fung is making soup dumplings in Soho, you run, not walk, to that restaurant as soon as possible. While the soup dumpling scene in New York is improving, nothing quite compares to Din Tai Fung, and since we’re not getting a NYC branch anytime soon, I figured this might be the next best thing. We dropped by Pinch Chinese, the restaurant in question, on a Saturday night, praying that there wouldn’t be epic waits for a dinner table.Read More
Everyone knows that Din Tai Fung makes the best soup dumplings ever. And NYC doesn’t have a Din Tai Fung, so when we eat out and order soup dumplings in the city, we are knowingly eating something inferior. We have to make our way through leathery, lukewarm xiao long baos from Joe’s Shanghai and watch in envy as the West Coast keeps getting all the new Din Tai Fungs.Read More
The first time I ever had soup dumplings was at Joe’s Shanghai in New York, but the first time I ever had great soup dumplings was at Din Tai Fung in Shanghai. The sacs of thin, delicate dumpling wrappers filled with hot, flavorful broth were nothing like the thick, rough buns that were somehow in so much demand in Chinatown. Din Tai Fung is a worldwide chain with locations everywhere but in New York, and Joe’s Shanghai seems to be the only game in town, so eating soup dumplings is a rare occasion for me.
I was talking to a coworker one day, and she was the one who let me in on the little secret that is Shanghai Cafe Deluxe, a restaurant in Chinatown that apparently makes better soup dumplings than the ones at Joe’s, and perhaps even better than the ones at the indomitable Din Tai Fung. I had to get to the bottom of this and headed to the restaurant on a Sunday, where I ordered both the pork and the crab meat & pork soup dumplings. Unlike Joe’s, there isn’t really a line at Shanghai Cafe, and we waited about 5 minutes for a table. Things were off to a good start.
The verdict? The wrapper was a little thicker than I liked, but it wasn’t as bad as Joe’s. It doesn’t hold up too well when it cools, though, and the wrapper starts to get very chewy. So obviously, eat it as soon as you can. The crab meat is the way to go here. The broth has that great, briney flavor that is unmistakably crab roe, which makes it a pleasure to bite into. The pork dumplings are solid, but the broth is a little more one-note. The dipping sauce is horrible. The soy sauce tasted bitter and burnt, like a batch of espresso beans gone bad, and I wonder if the restaurant used a bottle well past the expiration date. The broth is so flavorful, though, that you don’t really need any of the sauce.
When ordering other entrees, proceed with caution. We tried a cabbage with crab meat dish, which Ruoxi wanted because it reminded him of a dish his mom used to make. We were setting ourselves up for failure, one, because nothing can ever compare to your mom’s cooking, and two, sometimes those homestyle, family dishes are a little too authentic, if you get my drift. As expected, the cabbage with crab meat was nothing like the one Ruoxi’s mom made, it was a hot mess that looked like a bowl of leftover egg drop soup. Just tasting it, you knew it was bad. It was probably 90% cornstarch, 5% fake crab meat and 5% other. There were these random heads of baby bok choy that were hard to eat because they were just slipping and sliding everywhere. Morale of the story–stick to what you know, order the crab meat and pork soup dumplings, and make sure to bring some cash!!
Shanghai Cafe Deluxe
100 Mott St (between Hester and Canal St)
New York, NY 10013
Ni hao, everyone! Right now I am in China, the country home to pork belly, Peking duck and dumplings galore. I’m spending the first leg in Shanghai, where I have eagerly scoured the streets in search of a bao that will really wow me. For your reference, bao is a general term for steamed dumplings with filling, and Shanghai is known for several varietals called xiaolongbao and sheng jian bao. Xiaolongbao is a steamed soup dumpling that encases the broth and filling in a delicate wrapper, while sheng jian bao is a pan-fried version that holds the soup and filling in a thicker, crispier wrapper. I visited three highly recommended dumpling places that featured these particular styles, and here’s how they stacked up.
1. Jia Jia Tang Bao (佳家汤包) – Best Soup Dumplings Ever!! – This popular, hole-in-the-wall dumpling shop in People’s Square is renowned for its xiaolongbao. All the signage in the restaurant is in Chinese, and the lady who takes your order at the front can’t speak a word of English, so try to bring along a Mandarin-speaking friend who can help a brotha out! We ordered two types of xiaolongbao, the pork and the pork & crab roe. There is only one word to describe these soup dumplings–amazeballs. The broth was just so rich and delicious in that perfected, family-recipe type of way. And the crab roe dumpling was out of this world. This isn’t anything like eating the pork and crab meat dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai (which is frankly a dump and not comparable to any of the establishments reviewed here), where you scratch your head like the old lady in the Burger King commercials thinking “where’s the crab meat??” Here, you can definitely taste the ocean floor in a good way when you bite into the dumpling. Love, love, love the pork and crab roe. In addition to the soup dumplings, we tried the seaweed soup. If you like Korean miyeok-guk, then you’ll definitely like this.
Jia Jia Tang Bao
90号 Huanghe Rd
Near People’s Square metro stop
Price: Cheap! $2-$4 per order (12 dumplings)
2. Din Tai Fung – 2nd Place! – So apparently this chain is a little controversial in that it is a Taiwanese-based franchise, but no matter. The dumplings here are solid. There’s definitely more of a slick, refined taste to these soup dumplings compared to the ones at Jia Jia Tang Bao. The steamed crab roe and pork dumplings were my favorite here, and I again appreciated how the gritty, ocean flavors of the crab meat were very apparent in each bite. Saying Din Tai Fung makes the best soup dumplings is probably similar to saying Chipotle makes the best burritos–they’re both solid, safe mainstream bets, but there are likely dozens of more authentic mom-and-pop shops that probably do it better. But not by that much, because Din Tai Fung is still a worthy competitor. We also ordered the shrimp and pork shaiomai, which is another type of steamed, soupless dumpling. The presentation of the shiaomai was extremely cute and interesting. I felt like I was looking at a dumpling straight out of the pages of Whoville! Tastewise, however, it was very disappointing. The shrimp was dry and lacked flavor, and the wrapper was really thick, which added to the the overbearing blandness of the dumpling. The drunken chicken and green veggies, on the other hand, were fantastic. Another thing going for this place is that the menu is in English and pictures accompany each item, making it very tourist-friendly.
Din Tai Fung
Several locations throughout Shanghai
Price: Pricey. $10-$15 per order (5 dumplings)
3. Yang’s Dumpling – VERY Honorable Mention! – Yang’s Dumpling’s honorable mention by no means suggests the dumplings here are inferior. They’re definitely delicious, it’s just that I found the sheng jian bao style of dumpling very difficult to eat. The dumpling’s enormous size and crispy crust are a recipe for disaster in unleashing scalding hot streams of soup liquid all over the place. On my first bite, I managed to make a small opening on top to let the soup cool inside. I was less successful with the next few bites, however, as the thick crunchy wrapper didn’t allow for me to make dainty dents into the dumpling. Instead, my tongue was assaulted with burning broth that were propelled by the force of biting into the wrapper. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the golden, pan-seared dumpling skin, and the soup was delicious, but I wish there were a more elegant way of eating it!
97 Huanghe Lu
Near People’s Square metro stop
Price: Cheap! $1 per order (4 dumplings)