When it comes to soup dumplings in Los Angeles, many opt to flock over to Din Tai Fung over in Arcadia. Hundreds of people make the pilgrimage from the Westside to the Far East just for their holy grail menu item: the xiaolongbao 小籠包 (XLB), which when translated literally, means “little caged bun.” But what most don't know is that technically, the Taiwanese chain isn't serving a XLB at all. It's a Nanjing tangbao 南京湯包.
Believe it or not, there is a classification of soup dumplings. A true xiaolongbao, which originates from Shanghai, has a thicker skin and not that much soup. A Nanjing tangbao, like the ones over at Din Tai Fung, are soup-filled dumplings with a very thin skin. And if you're lucky, you might stumble upon a giant variety of dumpling with a leathery exterior that's larger than the average fist and requires a straw to get to the soup inside. That's your crab soup dumpling, or xiehuangtangbao 蟹黃湯包.
All three classifications of soup dumplings originate from the Jiangsu Province, with the exception of Shanghai, which was technically classified under the Jiangsu before it was granted independent municipality status in 1927. It's an eastern coastal province and champion of huaiyang 淮揚菜 cuisine — a Chinese cooking tradition focused on light flavors, the liberal use of vinegar and utilizes pork, freshwater fish and other seafood such as crab as primary ingredients.
Fortunately for Angelenos, the specifics don't matter much in the States: They all fall under the broad category of soup dumplings. Though Din Tai Fung admittedly still tops our list, we've rounded up some other places so you don't always have battle the long queue to get your soup dumpling fix. Turn the page.
10. Golden Shanghai:
Golden Shanghai is one of the few XLB places that serves their soup dumplings over a wonderfully steamed piece of Napa cabbage. The hallmark of this joint is the price. You get eight wonderfully pump pieces of pork for $4.35. And if you want to upgrade to crab meat, it's just a little over an extra buck ($5.50). 828 W Valley Blvd., Alhambra; 626-588-2284.
Located right next to Luscious Dumpling, Hui Tou Xiang is the dumpling underdog that never seems to get credit where it's due. Though they're constantly entertaining leftover foot traffic from next door, they're solid competition in their own right. The store is known for their hui tou pot stickers, a oblong pan-fried dumpling and a store original, created on a whim by the owners. The name is appropriate: Hui tou means “to return to” in Chinese and that's exactly what the owners want you to do. Scroll further down the menu and you'll spot their xiaolongbaos. They're wrapped with a skin thick enough that it doesn't break on contact and filled with just the right amount of soup to prevent you from burning your tongue. There are two options that come in a set of ten: pork ($6.75) and crab ($6.95). 704 W Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; 626-281-9888.
8. ROC Kitchen:
ROC Kitchen is the closest thing you can get to authentic soup dumplings west of the 405. In fact, the dumplings are the star of their menu. Their goal is to strike a balance between the markedly soupy dumplings you'd find in Flushing with the less soupy version at Din Tai Fung. The pricing: eight pieces of pork for $7 and eight pieces of crab-filled versions for $9.25. 2049 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-235-2089.
7. Mei Long Village:
Mei Long is a Shanghainese eatery with a xiaolongbao that packs in quite a bit of flavor. They're larger than your average soup dumpling and the skin is super thin — almost translucent. Mei Long XLB's come in a pack of ten and it's a great option for those who prefer more meat to dough. The pricing is $5.95 for the pork and $6.95 for the crab. 301 W Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; 626-284-4769.
Mama Lu's specializes in — you guessed it — dumplings. With quite a number of locations in Monterey Park, Mama Lu's is an expanding Shanghainese house with tasty rice cakes and a spectacularly flaky leek pancakes. Their XLBs are $4.99 for ten pork-filled dumplings and $8.99 for eight of the crab and pork-stuffed version. The skin is on the thicker side, and if you buy the crab dumplings, they come nestled in individual saucers to ensure that not a single drop of soup is wasted. 153 E Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; 626-307-5700.
5. Dean Sin World:
The owner of Dean Sin World is the real Mama Lu (her daughter owns Mama Lu Dumpling House) and she makes all her dumplings and XLBs by hand. Lu began her culinary career in Shanghai, where she was raised and where she was in charge of managing over 2,000 employees at a food production corporation. It's the perfect place to get your XLBs frozen for at-home consumption. And they're cheap: $4.85 for ten and, if you want them in a bag for home, it's $13 for 50. 306 N Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; 626-571-0636.
4. J&J Restaurant:
If you want to avoid the long lunch lines for XLB, J&J may not be your best option. They're a busy Valley Blvd. restaurant where people are constantly flocking in for their signature crab soup dumplings (eight for $6.95). And if you order pork, you get ten for $5.95. J&J is notable for the juice content in their baos — and for pricing. You can get quite the meal or two with just a 20 dollar bill. Knock yourselves out. 301 W Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; 626-308-9238.
3. Wang Xing Ji:
Wang Xing Ji is where you go to impress your tourist friends. Though they have XLBs on the menu that are a step above the other city contenders, what you really come here for is the gigantic tangbao 湯包 ($4.95 for one). It's the Goliath of soup dumplings, stuffed with pork and fresh crab. The tangbao comes in its own individual steamer and requires a straw to consume properly. This is how you do it: stick that straw into its leathery interior, and suck all the soup out before you attempt to chew. Note that there are holes underneath that steamer. Deviate from those instructions and you'll be left with a really wet table and a soup dumpling with no soup. Consider yourself warned. 140 W Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; 626-307-1188.
2. Emperor Noodles:
Walk into Emperor Noodles and you'll feel like you've wandered into old Shanghai. The dark wood furniture and décor is utterly nostalgic. Though the title of the restaurant points to their noodle dishes, the eatery really should be named Emperor Bao. They're famous for their shengjianbao 生煎包, a pan-fried dumpling layered with sesame seeds, although their XLBs are excellent as well. The pricing is $4.99 for eight. But what makes Emperor so great is that the ratio of skin to broth to meat is nearly perfect for those who prefer a soupier dumpling. 800 W Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; 626-281-2777.
1. Din Tai Fung:
The dumplings here are the priciest of the group ($9 for ten), but there's a reason Din Tai Fung is the gold standard when it comes to soup dumplings. The Taiwanese XLB chain is stickler for quality. The skin is thin enough so that the interior of the bao becomes the star of the show. The soup is packed with a great pork flavor, but wait a while and you'll taste the hint of sweetness too. So yes, Din Tai Fung is actually worth all the hype. Although, with all the other delicious options around (scroll up), it might not be worth the lines. 1108 S Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; 626-574-7068.
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