I love xiao long bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings). It’s one of my favorite foods in the world. When I first discovered Joe’s Shanghai in Flushing, for about a year, if not longer, I would go there at least once a week for their famous soup dumplings. Once, I went four times in one week. So when planning our East Asia trip, xiao long bao was ever present in my thoughts. For a few days, I even considered making a detour to Shanghai just to eat xiao long bao directly from the source. Luckily for my bank account though, my brain overruled my stomach, and Shanghai was nixed. However, that didn’t mean xiao long bao was out of the picture. I was in Asia after all, xiao long bao were to be mine! So on our final night in Hong Kong, David and I made our way over to Din Tai Fung, or as I like to call the place, “xiao long bao heaven.”
The meal didn’t begin too spectacularly. We ordered Tossed Cucumber With Chili Oil and Steamed Vegetable Dumplings. The cucumbers were sliced thick, tossed up in chili oil, and then stacked. The dumplings were stuffed with vegetables (mostly spinach and black mushrooms) and steamed. It was literally what the menu described, but I had been expecting more. Something more delicious, something more complex. Perhaps the cucumbers needed some roasted garlic and fermented black beans to round out the chili oil, and perhaps the steamed vegetables needed some glass noodles or some tofu to make the dumplings taste more savory. In any case, both dishes were perfectly decent, but also perfectly one note.
Xiao Long Bao from Din Tai Fung
The Steamed Specialty Shanghai Hairy Crab Roe, Meat, and Pork Dumplings (6 for HK $68/US $8.35), however, were like little pouches of dumpling love. The steamed crab and soup pork dumplings were smaller than the ones at Joe’s Shanghai, but they weren’t small on taste. And although there was less soup in the dumplings because they’re smaller, don’t think you can eat them without popping them first. Everyone has a different method for eating xiao long bao. Most people poke a hole in the skin with their chopsticks while the dumpling is sitting in their spoon and slurp up the soup that pours out. I like to bite a tiny hole out of the side and pour the soup into my spoon. At Din Tai Fung, however, I figured I could just eat them without letting the soup out first, and of course, when I took a bite right into the middle, hot soup shot straight up my nose. Embarrassing, but I was more mad the soup got wasted.
Xiao Long Bao from Joe’s
In addition, the skin was extremely thin and delicate, but not so fragile the dumplings broke when picking them up. In addition, the dumplings were beautifully folded. According to the restaurant, each dumpling has 18 folds. Not sure if it’s true, but they were indeed each gorgeous to behold, not homey like the ones at Joe’s Shanghai which have a thicker and more rustic looking skin. The soup inside was also a bit thinner than at Joe’s, but extremely fragrant from the crab roe. (Joe’s Shanghai xiao long bao do not have crab roe.) And the filling — made with pork, crab meat, and crab roe — was insanely delicious. I love crab, but the addition of crab roe, COMPLETE GENIUS! After I was done with one basket of dumplings, I was still hungry so I ordered another basket of the same. While we were waiting, David decided to go downstairs to scout out some Taiwanese shaved ice. When he came back, the second order was already in my stomach. They were that good. Gone in sixty seconds.
Do I prefer Din Tai Fung over Joe’s Shanghai? Definitely not, I have room in my heart, and my stomach, for both restaurants. Joe’s Shanghai is divey, the waiters surly, the dumplings never consistent, but when they’re good, they’re fabulous like a homey Thanksgiving meal with all the fixin’s. Din Tai Fung is more refined, the waiters and waitresses soft-spoken, and the xiao long bao, as good as any appetizer at a Michelin star restaurant. Pricewise the difference is negligible. Joe’s Shanghai is cheaper (8 for US $6.65), but at Din Tai Fung you get crab roe and better made soup dumplings for only a few dollars more. Both are great, it just depends what you’re in the mood for, as long as you’re in the mood for xiao long bao. And who isn’t? I know I always am.
(There are three locations in New York, but I only go to the Flushing or Chinatown branch. Midtown just doesn’t taste the same.)
136-21 37th Avenue (betw Main St and 138th St; map)
Flushing, New York 11354
9 Pell Street (betw Doyers & Bowery St; map)
New York, New York 10013
(Joe’s Ginger is part of the Joe’s empire. When Joe’s Shanghai has too long of a wait, I go to Joe’s Ginger down the block. The food is the same with the addition of vegetable dumplings on their menu.)
25 Pell Street (betw Mott and Doyers St; map)
New York, New York 10013