Crestfallen at Shanghai Flavor Shop
With high expectation for shen jian bao, I went to Shanghai Flavor Shop in Sunnyvale. Reports in 2009 and 2010 praised their sjb. I arrived at 6:15 and oddly was the only customer. I ordered the sjb and shredded pork & noodle with green onion sauce.
The sjb dough was tough, the tops were dark brown (overcooked), and they were coated in oil that had bits of residue (burned food?). The meat tasted odd. I cook a lot of ground pork and I know what it should taste like. There was a lot of empty space between the meat and the dough (airspace was 3x the volume of the meat). The one positive characteristic was a lot of juice (although it wasn't tasty).
The noodle sauce was flavorful but hardly had any meat. I actually asked the waiter if the noodles were vegetarian. If the meat were increased by 3x, the dish would have been more satisfying. The noodles were okay, but could have been more toothsome.
The 2 employees were very friendly. There were 2 other people in the kitchen. Something is wrong when there are more employees than customers at the height of dinner time. I wanted this place to become a favorite. Such a disappointment. When I had almost finished, one person stepped in for a takeout.
I'll stay with Dumpling Kitchen in San Francisco for sjb. Never been disappointed there.
If chowhounds know of other good sjb places, do share!
I whole-heartedly agree with you. I was initially baffled at why this place had received positive reviews. The only explanation I can find is that there are two kinds of SJB - the right kind and the bastardized kind Shanghai Flavor Shop serves, which they apparently excel at ;)
I'm personally a huge fan of the SJB at Little Shanghai in San Mateo. The ones at Beijing Restaurant in SF aren't bad either.
Are you clear on what you are looking for in sheng jian bao? The pictures below show SJB from first, Xiao Yang's fried Dumplings, considered the best in Shanghai by most accounts, and second, from Xiao Xian Shengjian, my personal favorite. . As can be seen, they are browned on the pleated tops almost to the point of charring, and coated with "residue" (scallion tops, sesame seeds and yes, perhaps, a bit of charred flour residue from previous batches). The wrappers, unlike shui jiao or guo tie, for example, are made from a leavened dough and there will be an air space because of the dough's rising. "Tough" is a subjective term and I can't judge Shanghai Flavor Shops's wrappers without experiencing them, but a thick chewiness is another characteristic. I also can't judge the flavor of the ground pork in the dumplings you had, but it is not just any ground pork; it's typically pork belly seasoned with at least ginger, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, and chopped scallions.
If anything, your post makes me more curious than before about Shanghai Flavor Shop''s sheng jian bao because stateside makers of SJB usually wimp out on the browning as well as the fatty, drizzle-down-the-chin juiciness.
Damn, this is like my worst nightmare coming true. I'll have to do more research into SJB...
In any case, I would assume (based on the OP's comment about Dumpling Kitchen) the OP is more accustomed (as am I) to SJB that are fried on the bottom:
Having only had the Shanghai Flavor Shop - style SJB only once, it's hard to generalize, but I would say the main differences would be less cavernous space in the middle, the bottom is fried instead of the top (and is not as heavily fried), and the dough is softer.
I'm not sure that leavened dough is the sole explanation for the air space - there are plenty of examples of buns that are made with leavened dough that do not have such space (like BBQ pork buns).
Here is Wikipedia's take on SJB--
The article implies they are fried with the flat bottom down ("The "knot" of the bun, where the dough is folded together, faces downwards when cooling to prevent the crispy bottom from getting soggy.") but the accompanying photo from Shanghai shows them fried pleated side down. Maybe the pleated side gets less soggy because its shape means less surface area contacts the plate or because the unevenness allows moisture to escape.
Frying sheng jian bao on the top versus frying on the bottom is one of those little mysteries I've yet to solve. I believe that frying on the bottom is the old style, but has been all but abandoned in Shanghai and my Shanghai relatives tend to agree. This photo set has several examples from Shanghai that are fried on the pleated side, plus several from the Bay Area (Bund Shanghai, Shanghai Dumpling King, Sunny Shanghai and Shanghai Restaurant in Oakland) that all appear to be fried on the flat side. The local examples are all more lightly fried, as well. My theory is that frying on the pleated side gives a better seal.
Interesting... so your relatives confirm that shen jian bao used to be made frying on the bottom in Shanghai? I did some digging and began to wonder if the ones I am used to are actually shui jian bao. I think frying on the pleated side might be considered to look better, since the "clean" side is nice and smooth. I'm not sure about the seal though - if you're worried about juices staying in, it seems like it'd be better to fry the bottom since turning it upside down may cause juices to leak out the top (which is the only place there would be holes, if any). Then again, maybe the concern is around losing moisture as steam?
Talk about a food evolution....SJB has been through a lot of changes since 1920s/1930s.
Have any of your relatives in Shanghai ever eaten at 萝春阁茶馆 when it was still around in the 1980s? That place moved to Ningbo Road at some point in the 80s, but is, amongst many older Shanghainese folk, the way they remember how traditional SJB should and used to be, before its evolution through time. It is also the restaurant that rose to fame because the owner introduced a street food vendor's SJB (including the chef himself) into the tea house and made it a household name.
Many people seem to think that a SJB should be toasty/crispy/slightly burnt on the bottom (or top) side, and packed with juices or soup....the version as it came to be when it started was not like that. The meat filling should be closer to a meatball, juicy but not bursting with soup in its traditional original form. For example, 大壶春 in Shanghai (still around I believe) from 1932, adheres to using no aspic, no pork skin gelee, and allow the natural meat juices to shine
I too don't know when the top side started to be pan fried instead of the bottom, but whoever started doing this eventually made it widespread.
As far as the top side pleating, it used to be that the folds were pointing upwards as the traditional form. Then due to harsh economic times (and for vendors to reduce costs) they started pleating so the folds faced downward/inward...also in a way to reduce the amount of space occupied by the meat filling. Then at some point the inward/downward folds became the norm. So as a result, the original way is no longer "authentic"...
It also looks like I'm due for a return to Shanghai Flavor Shop...must have been almost 2 years since I last went. I'll have to see for myself if they have fallen.
But either way, SJB is a very personal matter. Probably more so than XLB.
re: K K
I tried the SJB today at shanghai flavor shop, and they fit the bill for me but aren't up there with Yang's in shanghai.
The bottom, fried part of the skin was tasty and had the right crust, and the filling was pretty good. Lots of flavor and dripping fat.
The top was a little weird, like the dumplings had been made a few days ago and the dough had developed a little crust that wasn't from cooking.
We had some decent dried preserved pork noodles with some kind of a soy sauce. Pretty tasty on a cool night. But I wouldn't drive more than a few miles for this - and the price, $7/6 dumplings.