Slideshow SLIDESHOW: The Best Soup Dumplings In Chinatown, Manhattan

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The Winners!

#1: Shanghai Cafe Deluxe
100 Mott Street, New York NY 10013 (map); 212-966-3988
#2: Shanghai Asian Manor
21 Mott Street, New York NY 10013 (map); 212-766-6311
#3: Shanghai Asian Cuisine
14 Elizabeth Street, New York NY 10013 (map); 212-964-5640

Want to skip straight to the results? Click through the slideshow above!

Finding the best Xiao Long Bao—the famed soup-filled dumplings from Shanghai—in New York has always been a pet project of mine, but it's not an easy goal to accomplish. For one thing, the darn little juicy buns have become so popular that it seems every single Chinese restaurant in the city, Shanghainese or not, has started serving them. For another, the things are not easy to taste at their best. Unlike many of our tasting projects at Serious Eats which can be carried out in the office side by side, soup dumplings absolutely must be eaten within moments after they're steamed through.

Why? Well, if you've yet to experience XLB (as those cool kids in the know like to refer to them in tweets), they're made by gently folding a gelatin-rich pork or pork-and-crab-based filling into a thin round of stretchy wheat dough. The dough gets gathered up and pleated into a cute little swirled bun with a tiny nipple at the top. As the dumpling gets subsequently steamed, the gelatin-rich broth in the filling melts out, filling up the delicately steamed wrapper with savory liquid soup that must be carefully sucked out before the rest of the dumpling can be consumed. (For those of you who are culinarily inclined, here's my article on how to make them at home).

Let those little guys sit for too long, and a few scenarios are likely to occur:

  1. The skin absorbs too much liquid, turning thick, doughy, and wet rather than thin, slightly stretchy, and shiny.
  2. The soupy filling starts to re-congeal, turning what was once a hot liquid center into a mushy, gelatinous, semi-solid filling. Ick.
  3. Someone far wiser than you comes along and eats them all before they get the chance to cool.

You do not want any of these things to happen, particularly not when you are trying to discover which ones are the best.

Given the magnitude of the task, I decided to break it down into more manageable, walkable segments. For our first installment, I limited my search area to Manhattan's Chinatown. Every dumpling was eaten within moments after receiving the order, and all of the tasting took place over the course of two days. Most shops were visited once, but I held a few tie-breakers amongst the top contenders before finalizing my choices.

Want to skip straight to the results? Click through the slideshow above!

How To Eat

It's not immediately obvious how to consume an XLB without burning yourself or sending hot soup cascading down your blouse or tie or naked chest (depending on how formal the restaurant you're eating at is). Here's how to do it:

  • Grab. Using chopsticks or your fingertips, gently lift the dumpling off of its cabbage (or parchment paper) liner and gently place it upon a soup spoon. Some restaurant provide tiny tongs for doing this. I find them to be too rough on the delicate skins. I use my fingers.
  • Nibble. Find an especially appetizing portion of the stretched out skin and gently nibble a tiny, tiny hole in it while your lips are firmly ensconced around the opening-to-be. More advanced eaters paired with exceptionally thin-skinned Xiao Long Bao may find nibble to be completely superfluous and that merely sucking (see next step) is sufficient to release the glorious juices from within.
  • Suck. Hot soup should immediately being pouring into your mouth. Carefully suck at the hole tilting the spoon as you go so that every last drop of precious liquid is slurped away. Alternatively, leave just a little bit to make the rest of the filling extra-juicy. If you are a true expert, you'll be able to do this while simultaneously sucking in just a bit of air to cool the hot liquid as it enters your mouth. If you're not yet at this stage, you may need to allow the dumplings to rest just a moment before proceeding.
  • Dip. If you are so inclined, you can at this point dip the remainder of the dumpling in a bit of the black vinegar that they should have been served with.
  • Bite. Go in for a bigger bite. If the XLB are dainty, you can eat the entire remainder in one go. Larger ones can be eaten in a couple of bites.
  • Swallow. And savor. Repeat until satisfied.

The Contenders


View Soup Dumplings in a larger map

Despite being a specialty of Shanghai, these days you can find soup dumplings at every Sichuan restaurant and its brother. It's a little odd, considering Shanghai is a good 1,300 miles from China's central Sichuan province. By geographical equivalence, that'd be sort of like a restaurant specializing in Danish cuisine opening up in Beijing's fictional Little Denmark and serving Neapolitan pizza. I've never had a decent Xiao Long Bao in a Sichuanese restaurant, or any restaurant other than those specializing in Shanghai Cuisine, for that matter.*

*Exception: the excellent crab and pork soup dumplings that Joe Ng makes at Red Farm (our review here).

In the interest of keeping our options limited to a reasonable number and cut out the riff-raff, I decided to restrict the contenders to only those shops that self-identify as Shanghainese and/or claim soup dumplings to be one of their specialties. For the most part this meant places that roll their own dough, make their own filling, and steam everything fresh (there were two exceptions serving frozen dumplings, and one shop that made fresh dumplings out of frozen fillings). We tasted only pork-flavored dumplings in each shop (if anyone knows of a soup dumpling place in New York that makes them with real crab instead of the fishy canned stuff, I'm all ears).

Here's the lineup in alphabetical order:

  1. 465 Restaurant Shanghai Cuisine
  2. Old Shanghai Deluxe
  3. Joe's Ginger
  4. Joe's Shanghai
  5. Nice Green Bo
  6. Shanghai Asian Cuisine
  7. Shanghai Asian Manor
  8. Shanghai Cafe Deluxe
  9. Shanghai Cuisine
  10. Shanghai Gourmet
  11. XO Taste

There are two styles of soup dumpling. The more traditional is made by adding a filling and cubes of pure gelatin separately to the wrapper before sealing them up. The more modern (and easier) method is to add the gelatinous broth directly to the filling. With the former, you end up with a tight meatball inside a pool of soup, while with the latter, you end up with a much softer, spongier piece of filling inside. It's a matter of personal preference which you like, but Chichi Wang, a Shanghai native and soup dumpling connoisseur, insists that only the former would be recognized as a true Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai.

For the record, in this tasting, every restaurant made the latter form.

The Criteria

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There are three key elements to a soup dumpling that must all come together in harmony:

  • The skin must be as delicate and as thin as possible without actually breaking when the dumpling is lifted by the tip and gently transferred to a spoon. It should be fully cooked, even at the little twisted nubbin (lesser dumplings are often undercooked or doughy at this section). The skin should be shiny and show a gentle stretch and resilience when you pull at it with your teeth.
  • The soup must be extremely savory and leave your lips sticky with gelatinous juices when finished. It's got to taste like real pork broth, not simply MSG-ified salty soup base. Aromatics like ginger, scallion, and garlic are optional, but if present, must not overwhelm the meatiness of the soup. A touch of sweetness is desirable, but it can't be cloying.
  • The filling should have enough fat in it that it carries and enriches the flavor of the entire dumpling, but oozy, gelatinous gunk is not desirable. Pork should be the predominant flavor, seasoned well with salt and a touch of sugar. Texturally, it should be juicy and moist with a bit of spring to the bite. Mushy or overcooked and tacky fillings are not acceptable.

Want to skip straight to the results? Click through the slideshow above!

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The Winner: Shanghai Cafe Deluxe

I tried Shanghai Cafe Deluxe for the first time this past summer and was mightily impressed by their soup dumplings then (see the full review here). Turns out, it was with good reason. They consistently churn out the best dumplings in the neighborhood with ultra-savory soup, and a nice porky filling. They aren't the absolute thinnest-skinned of the lot, but the skins are unfailingly delicate and lightly stretchy. What's more, you're virtually guaranteed to be served dumplings that were not only steamed just before serving, but were also rolled from fresh dough, stuffed, and shaped just before they hit your table as well. This freshness shows in their flavor and texture.

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My favorite spot in the restaurant is right up front where you can watch the nimble-fingered cooks preparing the dumplings in front of you. In a couple of recent visits, we noticed that there's a diminutive Chinese lady who's always there shaping dumplings, but that her two sous-chefs are in fact a couple of large (by comparison) Central American guys. I always imagined that to make the most delicate soup dumplings, you need tiny, dextrous fingers (at least, that's what I always blamed my own dumpling-forming difficulties on), but as the fat-fingered fellow behind the counter forming dumplings every bit as delicate and twice as fast as the Chinese lady proves, this is not the case.

On another note, I'd love to have borne witness to the job interview in which a native Spanish speaker tries to convince a Cantonese speaker of his innate dough-pleating abilities.

Want to skip straight to the results? Click through the slideshow above!

What About Joe's?

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There's no doubt about it: the several branches of Joe's Shanghai are by far the most famed and popular soup dumpling restaurants in the city, yet in our many trips there, we've found them to be pretty unremarkable, their non-dumpling food even more so. Why do customers subject themselves to insane crowds (see picture above) only to be served what are at best moderately good Xiao Long Bao, and to be subsequently booted back on the street the moment the last dumpling is gone (or sometimes even earlier) by harried and surly waitstaff?

I've got a couple theories, but I think the strongest is that it's in the name. It's easy to get lost amongst a sea of generically-named Shanghai Cafes and Shanghai Cuisines, but Joe's Shanghai stands out as an easy-to-remember, easy-to-recommend to out-of-towners joint, and to be fair, I wouldn't say no to their soup dumplings. They're good, they're just not great.

Joe's Ginger a few doors down on Pell Street seemed to have realized that part of Joe's path to soup dumpling fame is in his name, for they have usurped Joe's name as their own, even claiming to be part of the same company with the same owner—Joe Si—as Joe's Shanghai, despite the fact that the manager I spoke to at Joe's Shanghai vehemently denies any connection. It's curious, because their relationship has been reported in several reputable sources, yet I couldn't get anyone at Shanghai Joe's to confirm that Joe's Ginger had anything to do with them. Take a look at their business cards, and every Joe's Shanghai location is printed clear as day, yet no mention of Joe's Ginger is made. Neither is any mention made on their website.

Joe's Ginger's business cards, on the other hand, list Joe's Shanghai locations. I will never understand the politics and economics of Chinatown—are the two truly unrelated? Was there a bad breakup? Are the managers and webmasters at Joe's Shanghai simply confused?—but I can tell you one thing for sure: Joe's Ginger may be an imposter, but its dumplings are superior to Joe's Shanghai.

That said, neither is really worth going to when there are at least a half dozen better options within a 2 block radius.

Click through the slideshow above for a full breakdown of the results.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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