Shanghai: some xiaolongbao notes (and a new champeen?)
On a recent whirlwind visit to Shanghai I felt duty-bound to survey the state of Xiaolong bao in its native habitat as best I could in the time I had. I hit perhaps 10 places ranging from XLB's cradle at Cheng Huang Miao to the Pudong Airport food court, and will have a detailed report on my own website later, but the nitty gritty in a nutshell (no, not literally) is:
1) The Nanxiang Steamed Dumpling shop has, lamentably, declined greatly in quality over the past 10 years or so and cannot seriously claim to have the best xiaolong bao around. The wrappers were thick and gummy, and the solid filling overly chewy. Only the "soup" inside was as it always has been, satisfyingly intense in flavor.
2) The upstart Taiwanese Din Tai Fung chain (Xintiandi branch) is beating the Nanxiang on its own turf with baozi nearly the equal of the Nanxiang in its heyday. The wrappers equalled the best I have ever encountered, though the solid filling was slightly gritty and the soup a bit lacking in sharpness of flavor. DTF, however, is ridiculously expensive (RMB 45 for 10 pork XLB) and quite stuffy for a dumpling shop.
3) The best XLB in town may be at a modest corner shop on Henan Nan Lu (#238) at Wenmiao Lu. I was tipped off to this place by a xiaolong bao-crazy blogger and a couple of locals. The wrappers, meat filling and soup were all done just right, matching the pinnacle of perfection I first encountered at the pre-redevelopment Nanxiang in 1992. They were markedly better than DTF's, at about 1/10th(!) the price -- RMB 6 for 12 dumplings (that's 75 cents US, folks). Beware that the place is small and very popular around lunch time.
Last time I was in Shanghai (December/January) my parents (who are currently living there and native Shanghainese) took me to an amazing xlb place. I'm not sure as to the road names and my inability to read chinese is preventing me from being more descriptive. The place is in the hongkou area off of sichuan road. It's near the Ajisen. Behind Ajisen is a school and if you continue past the school, there will be a small little place that sells xlb and xiao wonton. Another noteworthy but not xlb place is an ah niong mian place (also really small)which has been getting lots of buzz. It's off of that big street near xiang yang lu and sony gallery is also on that street, maybe wa hei lu? They have noodle soup with fish in it and you can also get a bowl of crab meat. It is an amazing combo. My parents discovered these places from a top 10 list of Shanghai's best hole in the wall eats. If you can read chinese, I'm sure you'll be able to find it. The ah niong mi place was number 1 and the xlb place was 4.
I oddly neglected to include the name of the joint on Henan Lu that is the current contender for the best XLB in Shanghai: it's Jia Jia Tang Bao.
I was in Shanghai last October. I agree with you totally regarding Nanxiang and Ding Tai Fung. I got to Nanxiang early so there wasn't much of a lineup. The xiaolongbao there was quite ordinary. Ding Tai Fung was so much better. I was actually there twice in a week.
None of my family members was impressed with Nanxiang either (we all went at different times in the past year).