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Apr 19, 2007 06:43 PM

Disappointing xiao long bao at Yi He Garden

When I hear about a new Shanghainese place with possibly worthwhile xiaolong bao, I gotta go if I can get there. Since I am of the Idle Retired class, it was easy enough for me to hop on BART to downtown Millbrae for lunch today.

Yi He Garden (Yi He Yuan) is the latest in a growing collection of Shanghainese xiao chi/xiao cai (snacks/small plates) restaurants in the mid-peninsula area. Locate in downtown Millbrae in the former Jumbo Seafood location, it is a typically tidy smallish Millbrae/Burlingame kind of place. Though the name (which literally means "Summer Palace") might evoke Beijing, it plays up its Shanghai slant with an Old Shanghai calender girl picture on the cover of its menu and period recordings by my fave Zhou Xuan and other chanteuses of the era playing in the background. Nice touches, but could it walk the walk? With a couple of lunchtime noshes I had there today, it was (to be kind) taking baby steps.

The xiaolong bao orders at Yi He Garden come in two sizes -- steamers of five or ten baozi. I ordered a small order of the standard pork and the "crab paste" version, as well as another of my test items, congyou bing (scallion pancakes). Neither salty doujiang nor shengjian bao, my other two fetishes, could be found on the menu.

The only virtue I could find in the xiaolong bao was a thin skin. Both the pork and the crab versions (which, in fact, were almost indistinguishable from each other) were overly large, had ample but peculiar-tasting "soup" and were very stingy withe the solid fillings. They were so flaccid that you had to lift them by the topknot, and dangle them droopily scrotum-like from the chopsticks. Another problem was that they had a tendency to stick to the paper liner of the steamer; more than one broke while trying to detach it from the liner. The soup inside was thin and strangely sweet and tart at the same time; the sweetness was not uncharacteristic of XLB, but the sourness certainly was. There was no need, really to even dip them in the vinegar provided, and the ocean of sweet-sour liquid pretty much drowned out any separate taste the solid filling had.

If the xiaolong bao were disappointing, the congyou bing was even more so. The serving size was two disc-shaped pancakes, quartered, which separated when you lifted them like the two sides of a pita bread, revealing a bit of mashed scallion in between. They seemed to lampoon the platonic ideal (crispy on the outside, soft on the inside) by being hard and brittle on the outside and gooey on the inside. The predominant flavor was, shall we say, "skillet breath."

I should make a disclaimer here that these are just the opinions of a crochety old man on a couple of lunch items he happens to be particular about, and should not reflect on the rest of the lengthy menu of soups, noodles, and small plates, which deserve a vetting by persons who spend time in the area. The restaurant staff were all so friendly, efficient, and almost worriedly anxious to please it's painful to divulge my honest thoughts, but such is the chowing life.

Yi He Garden
420 Broadway (former Jumbo location)
Millbrae, CA 94030

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  1. Those XLBs in the photo do look a bit crude and not tightly packed.

    Reminds me of the version at New Mandarin Garden in South SF, although those pack a mean flavor and burst with juice, although not as loose and ahem hanging... like the photo of those at Yi He.

    Did you talk to the owners and see if they are from Shanghai or elsewhere?

    A shame though, I heard Jumbo was really on the upswing prior to them closing down..

    16 Replies
    1. re: K K

      Other than the somewhat peculiar flavor, I can see Joe's Shanghai soup dumpling fans liking the XLB; they're of that mold. I didn't talk to the owners, but I would guess that they are Taiwanese; Taiwanese like to offer Shanghainese cuisine but not vice versa, and the menu seemed to be a mix, as I recall. (Unfortunately I forgot to bring home a takeout menu.)

      1. re: Gary Soup

        Funny you should say that, because as I looking at your pictures that was the very first thing that popped into my head -- the XLB do look rather Joe's-like -- which, to my taste, isn't a good thing.

        Thanks for the report.

        1. re: shortexact

          Hopefully there's better fare at Yi He other than XLB, but that's pretty bad to mess up a signature dish.

          Perhaps we should call it Joe's Millbrae for now?

          1. re: shortexact

            My biggest fear came true one day when a transplant from New York posted a lament on Chowhound chiding the Bay Area for not having soup dumplings "just like Joe's Shanghai's," as if that is now some peoples' standard for XLB.

            1. re: Gary Soup

              Blasphemy! It's too bad Joe's is having such an unfortunate influence on XLB tastebuds.

              @KK: Haha "Joe's Millbrae." I like it.

              1. re: Gary Soup

                That reminds me of a story my parents told me when they were living in New York in the late 60s to avoid the cultural revolution/riots in HK/China. There was a dim sum restaurant, dunno where or the name, that had siu mai apparently the size of a huge fist. It might have been the only game in town at the time, and the place was packed with people waiting on the stairs. I guess good value/size and authenticity don't always go hand in hand.

                I re-read the review and noticed you asked for xien doujiang/salty soymilk. That's typically a weekend brunch only item at most Peninsula/South Bay Northern/Shanghainese Chinese restaurants. Where have you had it during weekday lunch?

                1. re: K K

                  I believe Shanghai in Oakland has it on weekdays, but I'm not sure. It's only recently that I have had the luxury of grazing on weekdays.

                  By far the best version I know of in the Bay Area is at Shanghai House on Balboa (yes, weekends only), pictured below. It even has the brine shrimp in it.

                  1. re: Gary Soup

                    I haven't had this dish at Shanghai House yet. But now that you've mentioned the brine shrimp, I will need to do so.....very, very soon. :-)

              2. re: shortexact

                Now I'm really wondering about a New York connection or influence at Yi He. I suddenly recalled one item on the posted menu lisgted as something like "fried tiny buns" which is what some New York Chinese restaurants list shengjian bao as (though they are not really tiny). What threw me was the order size was 10 (and I've never seen one larger than 8 for these heavy, fatty nuggest) and the menu described them as "both steamed and deep fried" which wouldn't be accurate. SJB are steamed and pan fried, though, like potstickers, and there have been a few inaccuracies before in the recorded history of Chinese restaurant menus ;-)

                1. re: Gary Soup

                  Ironically the best xiao long bao are the frozen ones you get at Marina Foods, which recently started carrying those from MyHall from El Monte, California. They emphasize that their xiao long bao are handmade in the US, and that's why they are the most expensive items in the frozen dumpling section. Try them in a rice cooker.


                  1. re: vincentlo

                    Even better than Koi Palace or (cough cough) Yank Sing? Wow...

                    Are the folks at MyHall Taiwanese?

                    1. re: vincentlo

                      I think that every xiaolong bao I've ever had in the US was handmade in the US with the exception of the frozen imported Wei-chuan line and a couple of products that came on a slow boat from Shanghai (and didn't survive the trip very well). I don't think a xiaolongbao-wrapping machine has ever been invented that could do the 18 pleats right. I haven't tried Marina Food's, but I agree that xiaolongbao can be quite successfully frozen (but should be eaten within a week or so). Prime Foods in Brooklyn makes a pretty decent frozen XLB, too.

                      A rice cooker? Why would that be better than a regular steamer?

                      1. re: Gary Soup

                        Is it legal to import meat products into US now? In any case, I have trouble keeping the wrapper intact when steam at home, hence lose all the juices inside (if any.) What's the trick?

                        1. re: intomeat

                          That's a good question. I'm not really sure if the Wei-Chuan dumplings are really imported, or made in the US or Canada under license. The two Shanghai specimens were definitely imports, which we got at a long-gone market that specialized in exotic goods from the Shanghai area, but they may have just "slipped past the goalie." I don't know if they were a regular offering, because they were too pricey and not good enough to seek out again.

                          Do your XLB break wile steaming, or when you are removing them from the steamer? You do have to line most steamers with lettuce leaves or parchment of some sort.

                          1. re: Gary Soup

                            Re: our earlier discussion, a rather unfortunate thread on the Manhattan board:


                            Certain gems from this thread:
                            "i know joe's is known for excellent soup dumplings"
                            "nothing is really that impressive at Joe's Shanghai other than the soup dumplings"
                            "Joe's was basically my introduction to Shanghai food."


                        2. re: Gary Soup

                          Oh I forgot to mention that my electronic rice cooker has a program for steaming food. Makes it easy with the timer, etc.

                          MyHall means celebrity or famous person in Chinese. They recently dramatically changed the graphic design of the packaging. They have always emphasized on their packaging that all their dumplings (not just XLB) are handmade in the US, trying to justify their prices I guess.

                          When you steam your XLB at home, I'm sure you'll eat them right off the steamer or rice cooker. When you order them at a restaurant, say off a dim sum cart, they might have been already steamed to death. =)



              3. According to the folks in the chinese gossip community, the chef is from the dumpling house (cupertino, near ranch 99) I'm going there today with my mom. Maybe it'll be better today? Though I may have a hard time eating while thinking about a droopy, dangling scrotum...

                2 Replies
                1. re: peppatty

                  Almost made it there to try today, but alas maybe next time.

                  Hu Chiang Dumpling House? If it is the same dumpling chef I'm thinking of he's Taiwanese for sure, but yeah that doesn't explain the ahem...shape considering HC's tang bao looks nothing like Joe's ....creations.

                  We're on the verge of using food slang to refer to body parts next thing....perhaps in the not so distant future dim sum items are considered references to crude jokes. Thanks Gary for starting a trend lol.

                  1. re: K K

                    My husband had to chuckle as we were eating the XLB. They were passable, I liked how soupy they were, but the filling was soggy and hardly there. The crab ones not so good, nor the shrimp and chive. We had the pork and vegetable noodle soup, pretty tasteless, the sliced rice noodle, pretty tasty and the shanghai vegetable rice, which was pretty good, but the dumpling house's is better. It'll probably not be a regular joint for us...