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Shanghai: a xiao long bao report card (long)

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I recently wrapped up a 30-day visit to Shanghai in which I couldn’t resist repeated indulgence in my passion for xiao long bao. I didn’t consciously plan a systematic review of the state of the dumpling art, but there were XLB vendors of repute that I had to track down simply because I knew they were there, and there were other places I stumbled across that I couldn’t turn away from without vetting. All told, I had xiao long bao at least 15 times, at 12 different venues. If you are wondering where Din Tai Fung is in all of this, I have discussed my reaction to DTF in the past in this and other forums; in a nutshell, I found DTF’s XLB to be very good, roughly the equal to Jia Jia Tang Bao’s, but so grossly over-priced by local standards that I found no reason to return to DTF on this trip.

Here is my October, 2008, Shanghai xiao long bao report card:

A+

De Long Guan -- Jiangxi Lu

De Long Guan made its way to the head of the class by shamelessly pandering to my memories of my first xiao long bao 16 years earlier. This Proustian feat was described in an earlier post:

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/569075

A

Jia Jia Tang Bao -- Huanghe Lu
Jia Jia Tang Bao -- Liyuan Lu

Despite my preference for De Long Guan's evocative product, Jia Jia Tang Bao must still be considered the King of Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai, because the former's smallness of scale and its somewhat daunting premises make it unlkely to assume the role of a destination restaurant. Jia Jia, on the other hand, has its small red-hatted armies of ingenues well trained to turn out sizeable quantities of baozi with the speed and precision of DTF's operating theater personnel.

The xiao long bao at Jia Jia are of uniformly thin skin, carefully wrapped and filled with solid and "soup" fillings of complexity, consistency and flavor. I didn't detect a whit of difference between the two locations of Jia Jia, or between their current locations and the former location on Yunnan Nan Lu (even more forbidding a facility than De Long Guan's).

Jia Jia -- Huanghe Lu
http://is.gd/6ZjO
http://is.gd/6ZvI

Jia Jia -- Liyuan Lu
http://is.gd/6ZkO
http://is.gd/6Zl4

B
Long Pao Xie Huang Xiao Long (Qibao)
Nanjing Tang Bao (Shouning Lu)
Shang Wei Guan (Xingshan Lu

)

Of these three, Shang Wei Guan was the most frustrating. It had been given the highest rating for taste by dianping.com reviewers of any XLB specialist that had a significant number of reviews, and was the hardest for me to track down, which I did on my last day in Shanghai. The XLB had amazingly thin wrappers, the thinnest I have encountered in years, but they were a bit sloppy in construction, and also tossed casually in the steamer so that they were randomly scattered in the long rather than than nicely arranged (one was actually lying on its side). Even so, I would have ranked them higher if the soup had had the intensity of De Long Guan’s. Long Pao Xie Huang Xiao Long in Qibao (on the Qibao Old Street) and Nanjing Tang Bao on Shouning Lu (a pretty good little food street itself) were two I stumbled across. They both came close to Jia Jia perfection, failing primarily in the flavor density of the broth.

Shang Wei Guan
http://is.gd/6ZlJ
http://is.gd/6Zm6

Nanjing Tang Bao
http://is.gd/6Zn2
http://is.gd/6Zn7

C

Fu Chun Xiao Long (Yuyuan Lu)
Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian (3rd Fl.
)Shanghai Lao Chen Huang Miao (Haichao Lu)
Yi Pin Guang Tang Bao (Guangyuan Lu)
90 Duolun Lu Tea House

Fu Chun Xiao Long also was something of a disappointment, primarily because of my expectations; it had been mentioned in the same breath as Jia Jia Tang Bao and De Long Guan in a 2007 “Best of” listing by dianping.com but it fell short of the other two, in my estimation. In particular, the wrappers were not only thick, but constructed with blow-holes on top, like the version the Taiwanese used to make and top off with a pea.

http://is.gd/6Zor
http://is.gd/6ZoA

For the Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian (or whatever it’s called these days) this was the first time I’d tried the third floor XLB, though I have noted elsewhere that the second floor and the ground floor takeout XLB have fallen far from the pinnacle of excellence of the Nanxiang’s heyday. I had heard various reports on whether the third floor XLB were better than downstairs, and I found that they seemed to be a bit fresher, but with little other discernible difference. This may be due to the fact that the third floor has its own production crew and facility, while the other two levels get theirs mass produced in the highly visible ground floor kitchen, where the stockpiling is obvious to anyone who has stood in the takeout line.

http://is.gd/6Zpi

Shanghai Lao Cheng Huang Miao is a chain of restaurants featuring Shanghai small eats; there happened to be a branch within short walking distance of my hotel so I was able to enjoy passable XLB for breakfast at will. They were not, however, of destination quality.

http://is.gd/6ZqJ

Yi Pin Guan Tang Bao is a venue I discovered when I was giving some visiting friends a walking tour of the French Concession area and they expressed a desire to try xiao long bao. Following my instincts, I left Hengshan Lu and wandered in the direction of Jiaotong University and sure enough, found Yi Pin steaming XLB on the street. They were great if you are there and hungry, but, like Lao Cheng Huang Miao’s, not something to go out of your way for.

“C” is probably a generous rating for the XLB at the tea house at 90 Duolun Lu (I never caught the actual name). They were oversized and bland, but came as an accompaniment to a lovely glass of longjing tea and I can’t think of a nobler role for xiao long bao.

http://is.gd/6Zrj

Not Rated

De Xing Guan -- Zhongshan Xi Lu

De Xing Guan’s xiao long bao are not orthodox xiao long bao, being oversized and of a different, though satisfying flavor in the filling. De Xing Guan has been around and revered for its tasty food for so long that event though what they dish out is, for lack of a better description, tantamount to a Shanghai version of a New York soup dumpling a la Joe’s Shanghai, they can call it anything they want.

http://is.gd/6ZrD

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  1. Oh my god, fabulous review! I am heading to Shanghai at the end of the year and I can't wait to try out some of these places.

    1. Superb stuff - much appreciated!

      1. Damn, just came back yesterday. Hope to be back next year and try some of these.

        DTF not rated at all?

        1 Reply
        1. re: PeterL

          I only rated places I tried on my recent trip. On my 2006 trip, I found DTF 's pork XLB to be on a par with Jia Jia's (Original Henan Nan Lu location), but about 8X as expensive, dumpling for dumpling.

        2. Xiao Yang: Well done and many thanks! If I ever needed more impetus to return to Shanghai, I have it now!

          1. Very impressive review. I will definitely print it before my next trip to Shanghai. But just a question; I personally prefer Crab Roe 蟹 粉 XLB than the normal XLB; it provides a more delicious flavor, in my opinion. So do you recall if the above shops serve crab roe XLB as well?

            3 Replies
            1. re: FourSeasons

              hah funny you made this post four seasons! I was just about to say and ask the exact same thing!

              However on 2nd thought, I really just prefer to stick to DTF. While I admit it is a bit more pricey then the other places, the xie fen xlb really just hits the spot for me. Skin is the perfect thickness, and filling is always amazing. I really dont think it can get much better than DTF. (note: I always visit the Hong Qiao location).

              This is truely an amazing write up by Xiao Yang and will probably venture to some of these places if I ever have the time.

              1. re: s0memale

                Hi s0memale:
                If I am correct, I recall we "talk" about Fu Sing at Causeway Bay Hong Kong a year ago. Based on my own experience, the best Crab Roe XLB I have tried is served at Fu Sing, especially around this time (Oct-Dec) period when hairy crab is available. It is heavenly delicious and my benchmark as the "best" (though I have not tried most that Xiao Yang recommend so will be anxious to know the comparison on my next trip to Shanghai). It is served individually, and rather expensive (if my recollection is correct, it cost HK$25-30 per piece).

                1. re: FourSeasons

                  ahh four seasons you are absolutely correct! we have actually touched on the best crab roe xlb subject in the past. I used to say that Victoria Habour Seafood had the best! Unfortunately it has been so long since Ive been there, and have not had the chance to try Fu Sing yet. Really gotta make some time for it next time i'm in HK! Thanks for the reminder!

                  I should re-phrase my above comment and say that for me, I feel that DTF xie fen xiao long bao is probably the best in Shanghai, or at least it can't get much better than theirs....

            2. Thanks for the report.

              I'm glad you did not incl DTF. Doing so would've been silly. Sort of like going through Memphis to do a culinary tour of BBQ ribs and stopping off at Tony Roma's.

              6 Replies
              1. re: ipsedixit

                Hi all. Nice report Xiao Yang!

                ipsedixit... I disagree with you on your comment on DTF.

                Cooking in China has changed over the past decades. Driven by consumer tastes maybe. To the point where the use of oil (that might be a Shanghainese thing? Shanghainese friends will tell you thats not the case) and MSG have become much more common than many other Chinese societies scattered all around the world. As I explained elsewhere in another thread, eating in many of China's local famous restaurants leave one feeling terrible afterward. Headache, extreme thirst and stuffed-appetite for the rest of the day. Maybe I am just a little bit more sensitive to MSG than the average person. So my comments might not apply if you are a little bit more resistant to MSG.

                There is a saying in Chinese (I think) which says that after a period of extreme turnmoil in China, you will find original customs and ideas propagated and preserved overseas. With Xiao Long, DTF has done a bit of that. Beats the like of Nan Xiang hands down. Skin, stuffing, taste, texture, hygiene, service. Everything. I would even venture to guess that DTF's Xiao Long could be closer to the stuff they made in China in the old times. While entire generations of consumers and master chefs in Shanghai were re-assigned to other works/places to live (or purged and re-educated?), DTF in Taiwan was started and grew in a relatively stable environment where (1) the consumers knew what xiao longs should be like and (2) there were probably enough good chefs that the KMT carried with them when they were kicked out of the mainland. Not that surprising to find better xiao long bao's in Taiwan.

                So. I think it is not silly to like DTF in Shanghai. I like it. ;)

                Xiao Yang thanks for the list. Haven't tried most of the place. Look forward to checking out some of your recommendations.

                Oh. On the issue of Xie Fen Xiao Long. That is tricky. You have to wait till its season and even then you can't eat that in cheap places. People - especially business people in China - cut corners. The quality of Xie Fen in most local eating places can't be trusted. I have tried a few places where the stuff was obviously not fresh. And for the price they charge! Forget it. Just my two cents...

                1. re: kaman

                  I wouldn't dispute that DTF makes considerably superior XLB to the Nanxiang of 2009, as evidenced by the "Gentleman's C" I gave the Nanxiang in my ratings. The XLB at the Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian have been going downhill since its 1992 renovation as a self-consciously tourist-oriented enterprise and addition of a takeout window. For one thing, when they started offering takeout, they began making the wrappers thicker to withstand the unceremonious dumping of the XLB from the steamer into paper "boats," and for reasons of economy, made the takeout version the norm for the whole place. The fact that locals and tourists (not to mention Anthony Bourdain) continue coming in droves out of tradition only appears to sanction the shortcuts have been taking. I was fortunate to have experienced the "Old" Nanxiang and the XLB of those days are etched in memory as the gold standard.

                  If the Nanxiang dropped the ball, some old line places like De Long Guan and upstarts like Jia Jia Tang Bao are dedicated to maintaining the standard, and do so successfully at a fraction of DTF's price.

                  Your raising the MSG canard is a complete red herring, IMHO, and has nothing to do with the discussion at hand.

                  1. re: Xiao Yang

                    Another entry to best of sweepstakes
                    Fu De Xiao Long

                    http://chinatravel.net/forum/Shanghai...

                    1. re: catraveller1

                      Actually, I was saving my report on Fu De (as well as Lin Long Fang, a newcomer Jia Jia clone) for an upadte when I wrapped up my current trip.

                      http://is.gd/uDMp
                      http://is.gd/uDMI
                      http://is.gd/uDMY
                      http://is.gd/uDNa

                      1. re: Xiao Yang

                        Just went to Lin Long Fang and had their pure crab roe as well as egg/pork xlb. I found some shells in my crab roe... Jia Jia is still tops in my mind. Agree with you on Shang Wei Guan...not bad but the dumplings were tossed around and flavor wasn't there. And it's just a little out of the way for most people.

                    2. re: Xiao Yang

                      HI ALL,

                      I TRIED DTF IN MAY2009, TAIPEI MAIN BRANCH AND ALSO THE SHOPPING CENTER BRANCH. BOTH EXCELLENT, BUT I THINK THE MAIN BRANCH TASTED BETTER FOR XLB AND DOMIAO VEG. SPROUTS IN GARLIC.

                      FAST FORWARD TO JUNE 2010, SHANGHAI CITY, YU YUAN GARDEN NANXIANG STEAMED DUMPLING MAIN STORE; I LINED UP AT THE TAKE OUT COUNTER FOR 1 SOLID HOUR. IT WAS SUNDAY 10AM. EXCELLENT TASTE AND TEXTURE CONSIDERING IT WAS THROWN OUT THE BASKET AND INTO CARTON TRAY. ITS THE HANDLING TO BE EXPECTED FOR CNY12/ 16 PIECES ! EXCELLENT VALUE. I ENJOYED IT EXCEPT FOR THE WAIT OF 1 HOUR IN LINE OF TAKE OUT COUNTER.

                      2 DAYS LATER, LUNCH AT DTF NEW BRANCH IN THE 2ND FLOOR OF THE NEW SHOPPING CENTER BESIDE AND ACROSS THE STREET FROM YUYUAN GARDENS (THE ONE WITH A ZARA STORE, TESCO, & MANNINGS). EXCELLENT XLB (10 PCS /CNY58), AND CRAB XLB (10 PCS./ CNY88). EXCELLENT SEATING, TABLE SET-UP, AIRCON, CLEANLINESS, COURTESY, SERVICE. ELEGANT. STEEP PRICE THOUGH COMPARED TO TAKE OUT COUNTER OF NAN XIANG, BUT REALLY A DIFFERENT PRODUCT FROM A MARKETING TEXT BOOK DEFINITION OF NEED, SERVICE, WANT.

                      NAN XIANG VS DTF IS LIKE COMPARING DRIVE THRU FROM FULL SERVICE. THE FOOD MAY BE RELATIVELY THE SAME, BUT THE DELIVERY IS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.

                      TASTES AND VALUATIONS WILL VARY FROM PERSON TO PERSON. MY OPINION, IF SNACKING ON BUDGET AND HAVE TIME TO LINE UP FOR THE EXPERIENCE , GO TO NANXIANG, EXCELLENT FOOD FOR THE MONEY. IF YOU WANT TO DINE AND SPEND ATLEAST USD10 PER HEAD, THEN GO DTF.

                      NOW IF YOU HAVE BOTH TIME AND MONEY; DO BOTH.

                      CHEERS

                2. Just tried the crab and the shrimp XLB at De Long Guan. Amazing dumplings. Great suggestion. Will have to try some of your other recs, though I'm tempted to just head back to De Long Guan. Thanks for the info.

                  1. xiao yang, tried fu chun xiao long on yuyuan lu this a.m. i obviously don't have the experience eating in this city that you do, but i found the xiao long bao quite good. the skins were probably not as thin as you could find elsewhere in the city, but the fillings had great flavor and were bursting with savory soup. no little hole in the top in our batch. (why is that a bad thing, by the way?) the biggest downside was that it was nearly impossible to squeeze our way in and we waited a long time for our food and for our table.

                    my reading comprehension is not good enough to read a great deal of the menu, so i'm worried i missed out on some of the other great offerings, there. the table next to ours had a procession of nice-looking soups and a corn kernel pancake looking thing come out. if anyone has an idea what the latter was, and any suggestions for what else is good, i'd appreciate them.

                    thanks, xiao yang, for your comprehensive and immensely helpful reports!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: cimui

                      I thot Fu Chun was pretty decent in taste, with plenty of soup. The skin isn't the thinnest but it's not too bad.

                      Jia Jia is very, very good... I would put on par with DTF in terms of the thin skin and fullness of flavor.

                    2. I've lived in Shanghai for years and my wife is a native Shanghainese so I've eaten enough XLB to fill a stadium. I thought this revue was very good, and I found myself nodding in agreement with most of it. For a little XLB variety, take a trip out to Suzhou and try the XLB at Huang Tian Yuan (it's downtown, just ask a local, they'll know where it is). The place is famous for it's noodle dishes, but the XLB is rich, savory, and a bit sweet (in typical Suzhou fashion). The skin could be a little thinner, and they could be a little "soupier", but the unique flavor is a delightful change from the usual S'hai version . I go there for a fix everytime I'm in Suzhou. Oh yeah, and it's real inexpensive too!

                      1. For those who don´t mind a grungy yet no-nonsense xiaolongbao joint, check out Nanjing Xiaolong on the corner of Gao An Lu and Jianguo Xi Lu. It is REALLY bare bones so be warned, but honestly you can get some pretty amazing Xiaolongbao that will rival anything you´ll taste at Din Tai Fung. And at 5rmb a steamer, what´s not to love? They also make a certain amount of their crab xiaolongbao varieties too, and these are also incredible.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: jhau727

                          Their xiaolongs are good, but the malatang that is their main offering is mediocre and overpriced (for malatang, that is). Plus the owner is very, very rude. I live up the street from it, but refuse to go there due to the obnoxious owner. Just not worth it.

                        2. Sorry to report that De Long Guan may be no more. I tried to go there two weeks ago. All I saw was a padlocked door, and inside was all trash and a counter. Looks like everything else was removed.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Steve

                            De Long Guan actually had multiple outlets, mostly north of the Suzhou Creek (Yangpu, Hongkou and Zhabei districts). Hopefully some remain.

                            http://is.gd/2IygF

                            1. re: Xiao Yang

                              Good to know. I tried to go to one on Jiangxi Zhonglu south of Nansuzhou Lu. It was right across the street from the 'Hiking' Hostel.

                          2. My favorite will always be Din Tai Fung - the quality is just so consistent...the skin is translucent and folded perfectly. http://www.sugarednspiced.com/din-tai...

                            I've also heard good things about Simon's Kitchen, which is opened by a former Din Tai Fung chef. The price is also half of DTF's price, but I have yet to try it.