Unwrapped: Finding The Best Xiao Long Bao in Dallas

Unwrapped: Finding The Best Xiao Long Bao in Dallas

Xiao Long Bao, or “steamed soup dumplings”, is a beloved delicacy from Shanghai. They are steamed dumplings with minced pork and blistering hot soup inside the wrappers. Through the past decade, this delicacy grew increasingly popular in the US.

Three years ago, we went on a family vacation in LA. The first place we visited after getting off the plane was the South Coast Plaza mall in Costa Mesa. We went specifically for Din Tai Fung and their renowned soup dumplings, and inevitably fell in love with them.

Invention of the crab and pork Xiao Long Bao

I did some research on the origins, and found some interesting stories. In the late 19th century, restaurant business was already booming in southeast China. The locals loved steamed buns and dumplings filled with minced meat, and competition was fierce among vendors. In order to stand out from their competitors, some innovative minds set out to find new ways to impress the clients.

First, a restaurant from Changzhou, a city just northwest of Shanghai, began adding crab meat and crab-infused oil into the meat filling. This new “crab meat pork dumplings” quickly gained popularity. At first they were cooked in large batches, which wasn’t ideal because those sold last in the batch often became cold and stale.

Bamboo steamer for buns and dumplings
Bamboo steamers of different sizes. They are designed to be perfectly stackable, so a tall stack of steamers can all fit together comfortably over a pot of boiling water. Note that the lids are also made from strips of bamboo, so they are not air-tight. This allows excess steam to escape instead of forming condensation under the lid, which prevents water from dripping onto the food. Water dripping will destroy the dough structure of buns and dumplings.

It wasn’t until mid 20th century that someone came up with the idea of cooking the dumplings in small, personal-sized bamboo steamers. This way, restaurants could cook and serve the dumplings in the same vessel, without ever exposing them to cold air. Hence, people aptly named these dumplings “Xiao Long Bao”, where “Xiao Long (pronounced like lone)” means small bamboo steamer. These steamers usually held 12 dumplings each, and the customers would order in batches of 12. There was also the option of customizing each batch, such as all plain (only pork, no crab), all crab, or half-and-half. A seasoned diner would always order the half-and-half in order to alternate between a plain dumpling and one with crab, to prevent the taste of crab from growing dull.

Crab and pork Xiao Long Bao from Changzhou, China
Crab and pork Xiao Long Bao from Changzhou, China

Turning up the juices

At first, the treasured juices running inside pork dumplings were merely the result of mixing the meat with water. To make the filling taste tender, the minced pork must be rigorously stirred, with salt and water added regularly. It’s an exhausting process for the cook, and I dreaded this step every time I made dumplings. Eventually the meat turns into a paste, having absorbed a significant amount of water. Salt is crucial in this process due to its water-retaining ability. While steaming, the protein shrinks and releases some of the water, giving the dumplings a juicy quality.

Then, in late 19th century, a pastry chef from a neighborhood of Shanghai came up with the idea of adding gelatinized stock into pork dumplings. He made the stock from collagen-rich pork skin, and then chilled it so it could be chopped into small pieces and mixed with the meat. The chef also reduced the size of pork dumplings, which at the time were usually larger and thicker. His invention transformed the common pork buns into these bite-sized dainty delicacy we know today.

Pork Xiao Long Bao from Nan Xiang
Pork Xiao Long Bao from Nan Xiang, Shanghai. The Chinese characters stand for “fresh pork”. The word “fresh” here is used to distinguish from salted or preserved pork which is also a major ingredient in Shanghai cuisine.

What makes a good Xiao Long Bao?

A perfect Xiao Long Bao must possess these traits:

  • The wrapper must be white, thin and firm to the bite.
  • The filling must be tender, juicy and still holds its shape.
  • Inside the wrapper there must be a small mouthful of hot soup
  • The dumplings must be served immediately after cooking. After a few minutes, the soup will be re-absorbed by the meat. Just imagine how juices in a steak settle and redistribute after resting. Great for steak, but not for soup dumplings!
  • Vinegar and shredded young ginger (not the overly-spicy old ginger) must be served along with the dumplings
  • I feel like this might be an overkill – each Xiao Long Bao should have exactly eighteen folds. To me, I could care less about how many folds are there, be it fifteen or nineteen. However, I think the point here is that the wrapper must be thin enough to allow all the delicate folding.

If you are fortunate to find Xiao Long Bao that meet all these requirements, you can follow the proper “ceremony”. First, lift the dumpling with chopsticks from the steamer into a spoon. Open a “window” in the wrapper and carefully drink the juice. Finally, dip the dumpling into the ginger-vinegar sauce and eat the whole thing in one bite.

Where to find Xiao Long Bao in DFW

The Xiao Long Bao we had in Din Tai Fung was top-notch. All the requirements were perfectly met, and the price was just slightly above one dollar per dumpling. I don’t know if they were the best in the world, but if I were to try other vendor’s Xiao Long Bao, they would be compared against Din Tai Fung.

Pork Xiao Long Bao from Din Tai Fung, Costa Mesa
Pork Xiao Long Bao from Din Tai Fung, Costa Mesa

After returning to Dallas, I thought I wouldn’t find any more Xiao Long Bao for the rest of my days. I was wrong! We now have half a dozen restaurants serving them around DFW, and I’m on a mission to find the best!

I have tried four places so far. In the blog entries below, I wrote detailed reviews for the Xiao Long Bao offered by these restaurants.

So far, the winner is Fortune House, scoring a perfect 5 out of 5. Talking about raising the bar! Jeng Chi came close at second, but I believe they are not far off. Some improvements on the soup’s flavor will bring them on the same level as Fortune House.

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