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Current soup dumpling status

Thi N. Feb 20, 2009 06:58 AM

Alright, I finally made it to Dean Sin World. Here's my thoughts on the world of XLB, a.k.a. soup dumplings, a.k.a. juicy dumplings. (For some reason, some people object to the name "soup dumpling" because they're not served in soup. But it makes perfect sense to me - I mean, a "pork dumpling" isn't served in a pile of pork. "Pork dumpling" = full of pork. "Soup dumpling" = full of soup. Exactly what I'd expect.) If it said "dumpling in soup", and it came as soup in a dumpling, *then* I'd be confused.) (Maybe I've been working on my philosophy dissertation for a little too long. Could be. You never know.)

Alright: current thoughts on soup dumplings available in the Gaberhood:

DIN TAI FUNG:
My first soup dumpling love (though not my first soup dumpling) - very al dente, piercing wrapper, and exceedingly clear broth. Intense porkiness, and super-sweet crabbiness in the pork-and-crab. The soup serves to accentuate/carry the clear meat flavors further. Very contrast-y, between the very firm wrapper and the sudden eruption of juices. You might say the firmness of the wrapper is what makes the juices erupt, rather than simply dribble out. Contrast. (OK, I've definitely been working on my dissertation for too long.) Anyway - beautiful. Gorgeous. Like many other things at DTF, the emphasis is on clear, super-pure flavors. Not soulful - but pure and perfect. My standing favorite.

MEILONG VILLAGE:
Does this even exist anymore? I can't remember. The only soup dumpling I don't really like in this town - big, flaccid skin, overpowering spice flavors inside. Sort of boring. I haven't had it in a while. Never really liked it.

DRAGON MARK:
A very warm, heartening soup dumpling. I really love these dumplings. They're actually my second favorite dumpling there (the first-favorite is those yellow, elongated pan-fried pork dumplings, non-soupy, that are also pictured on the wall), but I love 'em. This is not soup-dumpling-as-act-of-intense-careful-purity, a la DTF. This is soup-dumpling-as-super-tasty-street-food, to be gobbled down, and fast. Soup-dumpling-as-post-drunk food. There's a reason Dragon Mark is open late. Anyway - I've noticed, of the places, this is the one where the soup dumplings disappear the fastest. They just go down easy. High in yum. These are also the most purely hardcore *porky* of the soup dumplings.

GIAN NANG
The soup dumplings aren't the center of the experience here, but they're good. They are, like everything else here... cool, collected, calm, and very well-done. Gian Nang is not about the fire and the funk - they're more like Bach. (I'm not comparing them to say Sichuan places here. They're not funky in the way, say, old Green Village was funky. Green Village could shake that ass. Gian Nang is more Katherine Hepburn in a black dress, sipping a martini and giving you an arch eyebrow.) The soup dumplings are neat - there's more separated flavor here, more space between the flavors. They are Correct. And they're quite pure and clean - though not as militantly crisp in flavor as Din Tai Fung's.

DEAN SIN WORLD
Managed to go with high excitement yesterday. Little room, a glass-walled dumpling space in the front, where The Lady made dumpling by hand constantly. Dumplings: my heart reacts mixedly. Skins: perfect. The best soup dumpling skins I've had - they're some perfect mix between firm, melting, and just a teeny, teeny, teeny bit fluffy. They're firm->a millisecond of fluffy->melting away into porkiness. Gorgeous, make my heart melt. Filling: overwhelmingly sweet. Both a sugar-sweet, and a hard MSG sweet hit. The spicing and meat flavors are small and puny underneath the massive hammer of sweet. I was constantly, like, "get out of my mouth, sweet, man!" (I normally don't react/react minimally to MSG - my mom has a serious allergy, and I have the barest shred of one. Very few places make me react in any way. But this definitely gave me the MSG-itchies afterwards.) So weird. The dumpling skins are so utterly soulful, and wondrous, and full of dense flavor, and then the filling's like a hammer to the skull.

I also had: onion-filled cake. Beautiful, gorgeous, flakey pastry, wrapped around almost flavorless green onions. I also had: meat-filled cake. Beautiful, gorgeous, flakey pastry, wrapped around dull, barely-meaty-tasting-meat-filling, that's hardcore MSG'd. I also had: bean filled cake: Beautiful, gorgeous, flakey pastry, wrapped around very nicely textured, but almost flavorless bean paste filling.

Weird.

Afterwards, the counter lady gave me a free bean-filled cake, said the cook thought I was "awesome", and then asked me if I was there because of the Internet. I admitted to it, thanked her, and ate my bean cake.

Anyway: I have affection for every single soup dumpling above (except Meilong Village). I really like them all. But there's no clear winner in my soul - not like the way, say, Noodle House rears above all the northern-style dumpling contenders. Nothing quite has the same degree of both perfection, clarity, and soul of Noodle House's stuff. If I had to specify a favorite, I might still say Din Tai Fung - the intense, quiet, clear, clarity still gets me going, though I know what people are talking about when they call DTF "soulless" or "clinical". But I wouldn't stand up too hard behind that claim.

-thi

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  1. Porthos RE: Thi N. Feb 20, 2009 07:43 AM

    Strong post. Here are my thoughts...

    DTF- I also like DTF for the purity of texture and quality. It's a more refined and very delious XLB. The regular pork XLB are much better than the crab ones. The latter being a poor example of what crab XLB should be.

    Mei Long Village- The XLBs are variable. On my first visit, I had the XLB that you described. A huge wad of pork surrounded by a wrinkled flaccid wrapper. There was so much pork, the juices had leaked out and ruined the wrapper. On my second visit, they more resembled regular XLB. It had good flavor, a decent wrapper, but was nothing profound. Pretty good but not as good as J&J for crab XLB.

    J&J- My current favorite for crab XLB. The wrapper is thicker than the wrapper at DTF but the flavors are delicious and the XLB is spot on in terms of soup/filling/wrapper ratio.

    In summary, if I'm craving crab XLB, I go to J&J. For regular XLB and delcious steamed pork and shrimp dumplings, I'm at DTF. For a nice expansive menu and cooked dishes, that's were Mei Long Village comes in.

    As for the "soulless" and "clinical" arguments. I disagree. It's like calling the simple high quality nigiri at Mori "soulless" when compared to the sauce-drenched, scallion, and ginger topped sushi at Sasabune. Simplicity and restraint doesn't mean soulless. In fact, it's that simplicity that lets one focus on texture and more subtle flavors. (Btw, not implying that Mei Long Village is the equivalent of Sasabune or that DTF is the equivalent of Mori in the XLB world.)

    3 Replies
    1. re: Porthos
      Thi N. RE: Porthos Feb 20, 2009 08:06 AM

      No - I think there's a distinction between pure-soulful and pure-clinical. There is sauce-drenched sushi. And then there's pure, soulful sushi. And then there's pure, soulless sushi. I can't put my finger on the difference. But I know it's there.

      1. re: Thi N.
        Porthos RE: Thi N. Feb 20, 2009 09:54 AM

        Philosophically yes, but without examples/reference points for pure-soulful and pure-clinical it would be hard to argue where on that spectrum DTF XLB lies.

        1. re: Porthos
          Thi N. RE: Porthos Feb 20, 2009 01:32 PM

          I'd call Noodle House pure-soulful. I'd call Shibucho in Costa Mesa pure-soulful. I'd call both Viet Soy's chicken pho and Pho Minh's beef pho pure-soulful. The standard feel of the pricier-hipster pho places in Silverlake for me is pure-clinical.

    2. e
      exilekiss RE: Thi N. Feb 20, 2009 07:59 AM

      Hi Thi,

      Great review / comparison post. Thanks. :)

      Dean Sin World was on my list of places to try, but I'm pretty averse to MSG. If you barely get affected by it and it hit you like a hammer to the skull... ouch. Thanks for the warning on this place. :(

      I agree with Porthos that DTF's regular Pork XLB are more enjoyable than their Pork and Crab XLB (at least the 2 times I tried both to compare).

      Great comparisons overall. Thanks again.

      3 Replies
      1. re: exilekiss
        Thi N. RE: exilekiss Feb 20, 2009 01:32 PM

        It's not the worst I've had - I didn't break out in a rash, as I have before. If you take an allergy med before, it might be worth it for you at least *once* - for that skin. It's in your aesthetic, firmly.

        1. re: Thi N.
          TonyC RE: Thi N. Mar 17, 2009 04:06 PM

          I've asked, and been re-assured, OVER and OVER, by Mrs. Lu (mother to the owner of Mama's Lu), there is no "MSG" in the XLB. It's Knorr. And now you know. =)

          The raison d'être of DSW'd XLB is the chicken aspic.

          The second raison d'être of DSW is the wine brew w/ house made mochi ball.

          And the third, the shen jian bao (yes, also touched by Knorr)

          After the short lived Delicious Delicious closed: http://www.yelp.com/biz/delicious-del... , DSW remains the current bread house champ in Monterey Park, far above anything Noodle House is churning out, Knorr be damned.

          1. re: TonyC
            Thi N. RE: TonyC Mar 17, 2009 07:16 PM

            If you're talking Knorr bouillon cubes (which I would totally buy as a major ingredient - it's in the right flavor range - that particular sticky-sweetness), they're a major MSG source:

            http://www.amazon.com/Knorr-brand-chi....

            MSG is the second ingredient listed. Right after salt.

            (I know because, early on, I figured out that the vast majority of bouillon cubes were giving me that damn reaction. Expensive Italian bouillon was no exception.)

            I'll totally go back for the chicken aspic. Didn't see it on the menu - did I miss it? Or do I need to know Chinese?

            Is the wine brew the same as the rice wine lees soup with mochi balls, at Gian Nang? Because that's one of my favorite dishes on the planet.

      2. r
        RicRios RE: Thi N. Feb 20, 2009 08:01 AM

        Some Xiao Long Bao-related erklärungen for lay people like me:

        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/429821

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xiaolongbao

        1. h
          huaqiao RE: Thi N. Feb 20, 2009 08:44 AM

          One thing I've always thought about DTF is that it's so very un-Taiwanese. All the words people use to describe it are not commonly used to describe other examples of cuisine in Taiwan(refined, delicate, percise, beautiful, pure). They are words more often used to describe Japanese food and I think that's a major reason DTF has been so successful. It's a juxtoposition of rough Northern Chinese flavors with a very Japanese minimalist zen style.

          4 Replies
          1. re: huaqiao
            Thi N. RE: huaqiao Feb 20, 2009 01:34 PM

            I don't know crap about authenticity, since I've never been, but I've been told that DTF is distinctly Taiwanese, because it take a Shanghai-style thing and cleans it up and degreases it. There have been a few other places like that - that just feel cleaner than usual - and I've been told that they're Taiwanese versions of other provinces.

            There may be a difference between Taiwanese-high and Taiwanese-street. The street joints - like Won Won Kitchen, are grease-funky.

            Also - aren't XLB southern/coastal - Shanghai and everything?

            In any case - they're my faves.

            1. re: Thi N.
              Das Ubergeek RE: Thi N. Feb 20, 2009 02:15 PM

              XLB are Eastern Chinese -- Shanghai is in Eastern China. Also they're normally called "buns" in Shanghai, "siu lun meuh doy" -- in case you ever go :)

              1. re: Thi N.
                h
                huaqiao RE: Thi N. Feb 20, 2009 02:28 PM

                Taiwanese food, in general, is pretty rustic. Nobody really pays attention to the presentation that much unlike the Japanese where even mom and pop restaurants in the inaka(countryside) serve dishes I'm reluctant to eat because they look so beautiful I don't want to mess up the plate. That's why I find the OCD pleat counting on DTF XLB so very Japanese.

                And yeah, XLB are from Shanghai, but I tend to generalize and think of all the various dumpling-like foods as Northern Chinese.

                I think DTF has some of the best XLB around as well. Interestingly, I lived in Taipei for over a year and my apartment was just off of Yong Kang St. not far from the original branch of DTF, but I never went to DTF because there was a XLB place nearby that was 75% as good, but at like 40% of the price. Plus I hated the thought of waiting in that permanent long line in front of DTF in Taipei.

                1. re: huaqiao
                  Porthos RE: huaqiao Feb 20, 2009 03:24 PM

                  There is one component in there that makes it such a hit amongst Taiwanese. The wrapper. The Taiwanese describe the wrapper as "q" which approximately means "chewy" or "al dente".

            2. J.L. RE: Thi N. Feb 21, 2009 12:47 AM

              6 things, including my 2 cents':

              1. Nice post, Thi

              2. A matter of semantics: May not mean much to some, but a big deal to others. When the word "dumpling" is mentioned in regards to Chinese cuisine, the conventional meaning actually refers to Jiaozi. Technically, XLB are Baozi. Again, may not mean much to some, but for others, it could be a cause for confusion. For example, by just reading the title of your post, I at first actually thought you were doing a review on Jiaozi in soup.

              3. Go try J&J. They're my fave XLB (in first place currently, followed closely by Dean Sin World). They're next door to Dragon Mark.

              4. Dragon Mark misses the mark for me. A bit coarse on their filling. Good for late night cravings, tru dat.

              5. Mei Long can be inconsistent, but I've never had a bad XLB there. Great filling, but the skin can be uneven in thickness from one XLB to the next.

              6. Again, nice post.

              1. b
                broncosaurus RE: Thi N. Feb 21, 2009 06:36 AM

                You flipped the Din Tai and Mei Long reviews, obviously. Din Tai has always been "boring" to me, bland and tasteless relative to MLV.

                And how can "overpowering" spice be boring? Trite or emasculating or bossy maybe, but boring? sounds like you're reaching for an enemy XLB and the poor folks at Mei Long won the honors.

                As for a purported "soup" controversy I can't recall ever seeing any objection, but the phrase is vague enough so that I wouldn't dis anybody for calling it down. Modifiers can have many meanings...you don't have to eat a Denver omelet in Denver, nor do you need a piece of Denver inside it to make one.

                Three strikes, yer out!

                1 Reply
                1. re: broncosaurus
                  Thi N. RE: broncosaurus Feb 21, 2009 10:42 AM

                  Boring and loudness/overpoweringness seem completely independent to me. Boring is the mental reaction.

                  For example: take chardonnay. Could be many delicate, beautiful flavors. Or, in some cases, just an overwhelming, overpowering flavor of oak. It's boring, to me. Same damn flavor, over and over again.

                  Or, take some lovely green tea. Now pour three packets of sugar in it. The sugar is overpowering; the beverage is now a lot louder than it was; but it's also more boring, to me - just one flavor, one note, blaring on, instead of dimensionality.

                  I mean, in a dumb way, take heavy metal. Some is intricate and beautiful and everchanging. Some is dull and chugging and repetative and boring. It's all loud and overpowering.

                  Anyway - you're free to find what I love boring, or love what I find boring - but I think something can be overpowering and boring at the same time. For me, this can happen with oversweet, or when something is dominated by a single spice turned so high that you can't taste anything else.

                2. l
                  lakeshow318 RE: Thi N. Feb 21, 2009 01:42 PM

                  just got back from taiwan, and went to the original DTF (there are 3 in taipei). i was super impressed. originally, i was a little bumbed we were going there since we have DTF in LA and i've never been a fan, but OMG -- the quality was so much better. i'm assuming they use the same recipe, but i'm guessing the ingredients are just a whole lot fresher. if they tasted the way they are in taipei, i bet they would top everybody's list no prob. (drooling for more xlb)

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: lakeshow318
                    J.L. RE: lakeshow318 Feb 21, 2009 01:49 PM

                    Almost everything tastes better in Asia... (sigh)

                    1. re: J.L.
                      r
                      RicRios RE: J.L. Feb 21, 2009 02:17 PM

                      Anche il caffè?

                      1. re: RicRios
                        Das Ubergeek RE: RicRios Feb 21, 2009 08:26 PM

                        Definitely not... but they don't have yuanyang in Italy. :)

                    2. re: lakeshow318
                      raytamsgv RE: lakeshow318 Feb 22, 2009 01:19 PM

                      My wild guess is they probably have fattier meat. In the U.S., pork is very, very lean.

                      1. re: raytamsgv
                        y
                        yclops RE: raytamsgv Mar 14, 2009 10:32 PM

                        That's exactly it. IIRC, in the initial LA Times review years back, the owner mentioned the leanness of the American pork as the main reason they couldn't replicate the exact flavor of the mother ship's XLB in LA.

                        1. re: raytamsgv
                          The Chowhound Team RE: raytamsgv Mar 17, 2009 11:16 AM

                          The Chowhound Team split a tangent about the legality of bamboo steamers vs. stainless steamers to the Not About Food board. That forum is better suited to discuss food safety and local food laws.

                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/604492

                      2. A5 KOBE RE: Thi N. Feb 22, 2009 08:41 AM

                        When I eat the dumpling at DTF, it does lack the intensity.

                        When I eat them at J&J I really get that intense pork flavor, which is how the flavor should be.

                        Also, Happy Harbour has a good one. Pretty expensive though, I believe they are around $5 for 3 large sized ones.

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