Reign of the Shanghai Dumpling KingFriday, January 16, 2009
My mouth watered in anticipation as the waiter placed a large bamboo steamer in front of us. Inside, nestled on top of Napa cabbage leaves were ten succulent little soup dumplings waiting for me to eat up. Known as Xiao Long Bao, or Shanghai steamed dumplings, these labor-intensive dumplings of love are a favorite among foodies, and for good reason. Once you bite through the thin, smooth skin, your mouth is flooded with a shock of hot, rich, broth and a savory pork filling.
Shanghai Dumpling King’s xiao long baos are appropriately delicate, juicy, and satisfying. The swift churning out of their house specialty helps to ensure that you will get a fresh batch out of the steamer.
Smaller than those I’ve previously encountered, I was at first disappointed with their diminutive size, but I quickly realized the genius behind it. I could pop the whole dumpling in my mouth and experience the explosion of intensely tasty, hot soup without wasting a single drop.
The smaller size also provides a strategic health benefit. The dumplings are able to cool faster, effectively preventing the common case of burning one’s mouth in the excitement of getting XLBs into one’s tummy.
Well played, Dumpling King, well played.
The Hangzhou Crab and Pork Steamed Dumplings similarly contained flavorful soup, but alas, were not as juicy. I was also left wishing the filling had more substantial amounts of crab in it. The bit of crab roe on top added a nice touch of color though (I’m a sucker for presentation). A few dollars more expensive than the standard pork XLB – and with a few less pieces given – I would rather have had another steamer of the classic version.
In fact, an entire meal of just xiao long bao would be totally acceptable, and probably preferable.
The Scallion Pancakes sprinkled with sesame seeds were a miss. They were too thick and not full enough of the green onion flavor I expected.
The Beef Chow Mein was respectable, with tenderized and well-seasoned meat, but the dish was nothing spectacular.
And the Spicy Chive and Pork Dumplings were ok, although again, they didn’t hold a candle to the xiao long bao. The thicker skin of these boiled dumplings had a nice balance of chewiness and tenderness though, and they were served with an array of fragrant accoutrements. Fried garlic, scallions, sesame seeds, and a pool of tangy, spicy sauce. I was pleasantly surprised that the fiery looking chili oil was not too hot. Be forewarned though, this is an oily dish.
Towards the end of the meal, a server came around to each table offering plates of Egg Puffs – huge sugar-dusted balls of fried temptation.
It was ambiguous as to whether these were complimentary … it seemed like every table got one. No, not free. Just a brilliant marketing ploy to make sure everyone sees these golden beauties.
Who could refuse freshly fried dough covered in exorbitant amounts of sugar, dangling right before your nose? Clearly not me. I would have never thought to order these off the menu, so I’m glad I’m a sucker for direct marketing. These little bombs were delightfully airy and the texture was more like light eggy custard than dough.
The owners are hoping to expand to another location in the city in the near future. Fingers crossed it happens soon. More xiao long baos for all!
Update (February 2013): SDK still reigns supreme in my book. I have since returned so many times to this beloved hole in the wall that I thought this review (from way back in 2009) was in sore need of an update. The regular pork Xiao Long Bao (aka Shanghai Steamed Dumplings) are still my favorite. I could seriously eat an entire meal of just these soup dumplings. SDK has switched from using cabbage leaves on the bottom of the steamers to parchment paper — a smart move because I find that it helps the delicate dumplings stay intact as you transfer them from steamer to spoon.
Next up on our regular order are the Green Beans. I don’t know how they do it, but these are the best green beans I’ve ever had.
My previous disappointment with the Scallion Pancakes was quickly forgotten as soon as I discovered the Shanghai Style Crispy Salt Pancakes. With a super crispy fried exterior and creamy molten center of cabbage and onions, they are the like the scallion pancake’s better looking, more refined and charming older brother.
Other must-try items: Pan-Fried Pork Buns (fluffy white bun, pork meatball center, pan-fried crispy crust), Pot Stickers (a classic that is exceptional here), the Lion’s Head Meatballs (ginormous, not too dense, and swimming in gravy — perfect with a side of rice). And of course, the Egg Puffs. You’ll find room for these even if you’re filled to the brim with dumplings. Besides, they’re mostly air, right? Right…
Shanghai Dumpling King
3319 Balboa Street
(between 34th Ave & 35th Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94121