Satisfying, delicious morsels of doughy goodness packed with intense flavors, various ground meats, and the heart-warming comfort of soup all rolled into one bite-sized dumpling. Any description of xiao long bao is destined to fall short, because the best way to experience the soup dumpling is to share a steamer full of them on a cold, rainy afternoon.
The soup dumpling has humble roots as a Shanghai street food. They can be eaten before meals to stir the appetite, for breakfast and just about any other time in between. The optimal time for a soup dumpling is whenever you see them being made. Especially in Dallas, since there are few places that offer this treat.
This is the season of love, and many are making plans for Valentine's Day. Sunday, however, is not just the venerable Hallmark celebration, it is also the beginning of the Chinese New Year. How can we overlook a 15-day holiday observed by more than 20 percent of the world's population? What better way to celebrate than sharing soup dumplings with your lover and hit both holidays in one meal.
Eating soup dumplings takes a bit of finesse. Eating the dumpling whole would result in a nasty scald that would render your taste buds fried to tiny nubs.
The most common way to eat the soup dumpling is to transfer the morsel from the basket to a short, wide soup spoon. This allows you to manipulate the dumpling and nibble off the end to slurp out the juices. From there, you would remove with chopsticks and dip into a bowl of vinegar that is typically provided. Adding fresh slices of ginger is also a bonus. And then, devouring the dumpling whole, chewing with carnivorous growls is good form.
Today, we offer a battle of two excellent examples of xiao long bao. The gauntlet is thrown, and witnessing the scuffle can only result in a full belly and the promise of a nap to follow.
Our first stop is to a Plano strip center where I find the happy Yao family. Chris Yao meets me at the door and sits me down at the bar where we discussed Kansas basketball as he places a pot of warm green tea before me. I refuse the menu and ask about Yao Fuzi's version of xiao long bao. Chris smiles and says that just about everyone who comes in orders the dumplings.
The young Yao can eat a lot of bao. He says it isn't uncommon for him to throw back eighteen of them at one sitting.
When my order arrives, I smile with anticipation. I open the metal steamer basket with guarded passion. Yao Fuzi's version of xiao long bao is made up pork and shrimp. The Yao's serve the dumplings with a side of white vinegar that is infused with ginger. Biting into the dumpling to remove the cap, I find the skin tender and one of the thinner versions I have had in Dallas. Peering into the shredded hole, I slurp up the savory juices. Perfection.
It doesn't take long to complete the remaining dumplings. I finish up my tea and bolt for one of Dallas' most prosperous food intersections, Preston and Royal.
Royal China is tucked in the corner, rather unassuming, and also family-operated. This is the oldest Chinese spot in town, and has been newly remodeled. Royal China's dumpling bar is unique in Dallas, and an added joy as I prefer sitting where I can see my dinner being made. Hwa-Juan Shen is my dumpling maker on the evening of my visit. She is from Shanghai by way of Australia. You can sit and watch as she makes various dumplings, but do not expect lively conversation with the dumpling master.
I hit soup dumpling pay dirt at Royal China. They boast not one, but four versions of xia long bao. The shrimp dumpling with a beet puree, jicama and ginger sounds amazing. I choose the standard pork with napa cabbage and chives since it is closer to the version I ordered at Yao's.
I wait about seven minutes while watching Hwa-Juan busily roll out dozens of dumplings. Finally my order is ready. I open the bamboo basket and allow the steam to dissipate. I love this job. Sincerely.
The dumplings are obviously fresh, very soupy and the filling magnificent. Royal China supplies you with a station of three condiments. A black vinegar, finely shredded ginger and what they call "dumpling sauce," but it resembles a sweet ponzu.
The dumpling skin is its only weakness, being thicker and a bit more al dente than a dumpling should be resulting in a chewier dumpling.
Both dumplings rate high marks and are to be commended. In a time when this style of dumpling has become more of a lost art, it's good to find various examples in our city. When visiting Shanghai, I might recommend Jia Jia Tang Bao for their light, translucent soupy dumplings, but for this match I call the winner to Yao Fuzi for a thinner and lighter version than Royal China.
Yao Fuzi Cuisine
4757 W. Park Blvd., Suite 108, Plano
Royal China Restaurant
6025 Royal Lane, Suite 201, Dallas
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