The bamboo basket is set gingerly on the table, the lid pulled back with great flourish as steam fills the air. Inside, eight curious little pouches – each about the size of a small fist – sit, perky and rotund, as a savory smell wafts from the traditional steaming basket.
“Do you know how to eat this?” the waiter asks, and everyone at the table stares at the basket for a moment, no one wanting to admit that they don’t. The waiter, no doubt accustomed to American nonsense, explains regardless.
The correct way to eat xiao long bao, known colloquially as soup dumplings, involves a fair bit of chopstick acumen. As their name implies, each pouch is full of hot, flavorful broth encased in a dough that’s easy to tear if you’re not gentle. Lift the dumpling, set it gingerly into a bowl of vinegar and ginger strips, place it into the flat-bottom spoon, tear a small hole, suck out the flavorful broth and consume the impossibly comforting dumpling, then repeat until your server seems to genuinely worry about your physical well being.
At Fortune House, soup dumplings are a specialty, but they are far from being the only slice of adventure on this epic menu.
Owner Lucy Yong grew up in Shanghai before living in Vancouver, a city with a robust Asian food scene. After moving to Dallas, Yong felt a culinary homesickness. With the help of chef Ren Guoqing and pastry chef Zou Guifeng, in mid-2015 Yong launched Fortune House in Irving, bringing a massive menu that gives equal attention to traditional Shanghai dishes and classic American-Chinese food favorites.
Situated in a strip mall on a hill, Fortune House is understated elegance that frames a shockingly beautiful view of Irving’s rolling hills and the far-off Dallas skyline. The decor is muted but classic, the kind of spot that works on all levels from lunch meeting to date night. Even better than the view of Irving: a seat near the large window that peeks into the kitchen.
“Our kitchen is half-opened; you can see we are making fresh dumplings through the glass windows,” Yong said. It’s a mesmerizing sight.
The large and elaborate menu has plenty of familiar dishes for American-style Chinese food enthusiasts – wonton soup, orange chicken, fried rice – but the real fun lies in the “Shanghai Flavor” menu, an insert filled with adventurous shareable plates. The soup dumplings – listed as “steam juicy dumplings” ($9.99) and “crab meat steam buns Shanghai style” ($12.99) – are an obvious winner. Thanks to Guifeng’s doughy acumen, any bun or dumpling on this menu is likely to impress. The pan-fried pork buns ($9.99) are steamed, flash-fried on the bottom and crusted with sesame seeds. Inside the beautifully fluffy bun, the pork filling was so indulgently flavorful, this appetizer felt like a savory dessert. Equally as indulgent was a new item not listed on the menu: the puff pork pastry, a magical little sphere of flavorful pork inside crumbly puff pastry. At Fortune House, it’s tempting to make a meal entirely out of appetizers. It’s equally tempting to never stray from the Shanghai Flavor menu. It’ll keep you on your toes.
As soon as the smoked fish ($9) was delivered to my table, the smell instantly transported me back to the food stalls at bustling Taiwanese night markets. Pungent and salty, the bone-in, skin-on smoked fish came swimming in a thin soy sauce. Much like traditional Chinese fare, flavor profiles on this menu range from quiet and understated to bold and other worldly. The pan-fried egg white and seafood on vegetable ($18) came as a fluffy white cloud surrounded by steamed broccoli and topped in the center by an egg yolk that our server quickly mixed into the dish. Bits of shrimp, squid and fish fillet were finely chopped and sautéed in milk and egg white to create a fluffy cloud made of subtle but addictive flavor. If you’re looking for a pile of fresh seafood, this dish isn’t it – it’s more egg white than seafood but makes for a delightful meal.
If the standard American take on Chinese food is more up your alley, those items aren’t likely to disappoint, either. Ginger beef ($14.99), with salty hunks of beef coated in a sweet glaze, was addictive, as was the old standby General Tso’s chicken ($13.99), which was equal parts sweet and spicy. “This is, like, a really classy General Tso’s,” said our table’s resident General Tso expert, whose only complaint was that the dish – much like the similar ginger beef and sweet and sour pork ribs ($17) – was basically a pile of lacquered meat with few vegetables. Omnivores should peruse the Shanghai Flavor menu for veggie-centric dishes to round out the meal.
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For dessert, go nuts and opt for more traditional sweets like the sesame rice balls in minced peanuts ($8.50), which, in classic Chinese fashion, bear little resemblance to what Americans consider dessert. In a cuisine that adds sweetness with sesame paste and red beans, Americans with sugary palates may feel confused but should enjoy the lesson in subtlety. The sesame rice balls, filled with a mildly sweet black paste, were a fun, doughy semi-indulgence. Another new offering includes the eight-treasure rice pudding, a gelatinous mound of rice filled with fruits, a popular dish during Chinese New Year celebrations.
If the menu feels overwhelming, perhaps the best introduction comes during lunch, which features a $9.50 special that includes a main dish, soup, rice and a spring roll. This is a place where you could play it safe with your classic Chinese takeout order, but you’d be selling yourself short. Fortune House is a great place for stretching your palate or, if this cuisine is familiar to you already, an authentic taste of Shanghai cooking. Irving’s bountiful international food scene should welcome this spot with open arms and wallets.
Fortune House, 8150 N MacArthur Blvd #190, Irving. 972-831-9888, yongsfortunehouse.com, open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. daily