Xiao long bao: Shanghai soup dumplings

It’s hard to believe, but this month marks the fifth anniversary of Fab Five. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and because other publications have started doing lists of five related dishes (and one food critic for a daily newspaper does six), I’m flattered.

Though the best xiao long bao (XLB) I’ve had are at the upscale Yank Sing, this month I’m focusing on modest, inexpensive spots. There are three keys to great xiao long bao: the skin must be nearly translucent but not so thin that it breaks when you pick it up; the filling — a mixture of ground pork, green onions, ginger, rice wine, sesame oil, soy sauce, and sugar — should be fluffy and tender; and the broth must be a balance of sweet and savory.

The proper way to eat xiao long bao is to pick it up by the pointy top with chopsticks, gently place it on your spoon, take a small bite to release the steam, suck out some of the broth, then drizzle it with Chinkiang (black rice vinegar peppered with fresh ginger slivers), and eat the dumpling in one bite.

Bund Shanghai Restaurant
640 Jackson Street (at Wentworth), 415-982-0618
The owners of this family-run spot are from Shanghai, and the authentic food reflects that. These are the smallest XLB of the bunch, but they’re savory and luscious. The skin is of medium thickness, and there’s slightly more filling than broth.

Dumpling Kitchen
1935 Taraval Street (at 29th), 415-682-8938
The skin (the thinnest around) is supple enough not to break, and the dough is properly chewy. The broth is slightly sweet, which plays nicely against the heat from the prominent ginger in the soft, fluffy filling. Each dumpling has many pleats, a sign of XLB-making prowess. The restaurant also makes delicious sugar egg puffs.

Kingdom of Dumplings
1713 Taraval Street (at 27th), 415-566-6143
The filling has a rustic almost gritty texture, which isn’t for everyone. The soup is saltier, the dough is thicker, and there is more filling than broth. The Chinkiang had no ginger, a highlight of the sauce for me. Though good enough to make the Fab Five (soup dumplings are relatively uncommon), Kingdom of Dumplings would be my last choice for XLB on this list.

Shanghai Dumpling King
3319 Balboa Street (at 34th), 415-387-2088
The largest XLB on the list, the delicate but supple skin is one of the thinnest. The tender filling has a meatier flavor and texture than the others, and the ratio of broth to filling is perfect (about 50:50). The broth is perfectly balanced and the Chinkiang, poured tableside over shredded ginger, is bright and tangy. These are still my favorite XLB in San Francisco (Dumpling Kitchen is a close second), and the restaurant also has the best sugar egg puffs (also a close second for Dumpling Kitchen).

Shanghai House
3641 Balboa Street (at 37th), 415-831-9288
The skin here is thin but supple, the dough is tender, the filling is moist and fluffy, and the broth is the richest of the group. The Chinkiang has a pleasant bite and an abundance of shredded ginger, and they give you a big bowl (many places are sauce stingy). This is also home to the best “vegetarian” goose in town.

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