If you’re a foodie, work with foodies, or hang out with cooks then no doubt you’ve played a round of “what would your last meal be?” This is where you go around the table and everyone talks about what they would like to eat right before they kick it. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t figured out my menu just yet. But I’m pretty certain it will contain ikura (salmon roe) with raw quail egg yolk. I think I’ll pencil that in as the appetizer…
My husband, on the other hand, has decided that he’d like his last meal to be made up entirely of Shanghai soup dumplings. Appetizer, entrée and dessert… all soup dumplings.
If you’ve never had Shanghai soup dumplings (xiao long bao in Chinese) I feel very, very sorry for you. When done right they are the most perfect little bite. Dumplings filled with savory pork and delicate broth. It’s kind of like eating a perfect bowl of noodles in one bite. The dumpling wrapper should be soft with just the right amount of bite, like freshly made ravioli. The pork filling soft and flavorful with hints of ginger, sesame, scallion and garlic. But most important, the soup inside should be plentiful and delicate. The way to successfully eat these delicate creatures is to lift them out of their steaming baskets and gently place them on a Chinese soup spoon, pour a little black vinegar and a couple slices of thinly sliced ginger on top, then pop the entire thing in your mouth. If the chef got the balance just right then I swear it’s better than 50% of the sex you’ll have in your lifetime.
So, now that you’re reaching for your jacket and car keys and wondering where in the world you can find these heavenly morsels, here’s the bad news. Very few places in the world get it just right, and none of these appear to be in Washington DC.
I so badly wanted there to be a good place for dumplings here. I would even settle for semi-decent. But alas I still haven’t located any. Chinatown Express makes something they call soup dumplings but they’re really just steamed pork dumplings in the shape of soup dumplings. They are certainly tasty especially after dunking them in a mixture of chili oil, soy sauce and house-made ginger and scallion sauce. But don’t go ordering them expecting an out of body experience.
Last Sunday I headed over to Burma Road in Gaithersburg, MD. I had read about them serving some semi-decent soup dumplings. Well, the good news is they weren’t that bad. Bad news, I probably won’t be driving out there for a second helping. They were pretty clunky, with muddled flavors. Too large to be eaten in one bite and the broth that spilled out congealed within 30 seconds. Proper dumplings are made aspic—cooled and naturally set meat stock. But the rapid congealing of the Burma Road dumplings made me think that generous amounts of gelatin may have been used to cut corners.
- 617 South Frederick Ave. Gaithersburg, MD 301.963.1429
Finally, please don’t listen to anyone who tells you to buy the frozen version at Grand Mart in Centreville, VA. The skins fall apart, there’s no soup inside, and the pork turns into a hard flavorless ball when steamed.
Okay, now for the good news. There are a few places that do it up right… especially if you’re willing to travel for them.
Joe’s Shanghai in New York City: To be honest I haven’t tried many places in NYC; whenever I’m up there I just head to Joe’s Shanghai restaurant where you will find a tasty, albeit slightly larger version. Priced well, a bamboo basket with six dumplings costs $6.50. I’ve introduced several friends to soup dumplings here and they’re all mad about them now. For me, the large size ruins the perfect bite concept. It’s recommended that you bite the top and slurp some of the soup out before taking the second bite. Practical? Yes, but for me that messes with the balance and temperature (you need to eat these dumplings hot). The flavor at Joe’s Shanghai is robust, the broth not particularly delicate but they do offer so-good-you could-drink-it, black vinegar. If you live in NYC or regularly visit, Joe’s Shanghai restaurant is a great place to get your soup dumpling fix.
- 24 W 56 St. New York, New York (between 5th and 6th Ave) 212.333.3868
- 9 Pell St. New York, New York 212.233.8888
Yank Sing in San Francisco: This is an obvious one. You’re in San Fran, of course there’s good food. For consistently decent dumplings head over to Yank Sing, a dim sum place with two locations in San Francisco. At $10 per order these are the most expensive ones that I’ve come across. And the skins are a little too delicate so you run the risk of breaking the dumpling and losing the valuable broth before it makes it to your mouth. However, if I’m ever in the city by the Bay—even just for a couple hours—I’m probably flagging a cab and burning a good chunk of change on several orders.
- 101 Spear St. San Francisco 415.957.9300
- 49 Stevenson St. San Francisco 415.541.4949
Din Tai Fung: If you want to fill your mouth with those elusive soup dumplings that can compete with half of your sexual experiences then you are going to have to travel to Taiwan where the glorious restaurant empire of Din Tai Fung is located. Years of making these little bundles of goodness has resulted in the most balanced, soup/meat/skin ratio I’ve encountered. The broth is delicate, similar to a well executed consommé, with a clean but pronounced pork flavor. My husband and I spent a week in Taiwan last March and we ate at Din Tai Fung four times. Each order contained six dumplings and cost 130 NT (approximately $4). We seriously considered ripping up our return tickets and renting an apartment next to any one of their multiple branches. Maybe one day…
- No. 218 (alley 216) Zhongxiao East Rd. Section 4 Taipei, Taiwan (02) 2721.7890
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who thinks these dumplings are slices of heaven. Din Tai Fung now has restaurants all over the world, mainly in Asia but there is an outpost in Arcadia, Los Angeles, and one coming soon to Seattle. Since I don’t have the time or money for another transpacific flight, I’m doing the next best thing and heading to LA. Seriously, I’ve already bought my ticket.
- 1108 S. Baldwin Ave. Arcadia, CA 626.574.7068
In the meantime I’ll keep working on the menu for my final meal:
Appetizer – ikura nigiri topped with raw quail egg yolk and fresh wasabi
Entrée – Din Tai Fung steamed pork dumplings with black vinegar and ginger
Dessert – Still working on it, but I’m thinking it’ll include some of that other 50% that no soup dumpling can even come close to competing with.