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Shanghai: a xiao long bao report card (long)

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....