If you've spent any time in the San Gabriel Valley, you're familiar with xiao long baos, the tiny pork or pork and crab stuffed dumplings that have achieved cult status in the last few years. Today, we're taking a look at another Shanghainese bun, variously named shen jian bao or sheng jian bao. (Yes, technically a bao is a bread; but XLB are mostly referred to as dumplings, and these baos are more bun-like, so we're calling them buns. Semantics being what they are.)
Filled with pork broth and a ground pork, as are XLBs, shen jian baos are pan-fried instead of steamed. Sesame seeds encrust the caramelized surface, giving them their distinctive look — and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds and chopped spring onions on top makes these extraordinarily pretty as well as tasty. Shen jian baos can be found at most Shanghainese places in the SGV, but here are four notable versions.
4. Shang Ming Restaurant (CLOSED)
Located in a plaza known for its xiao long baos, Shang Ming took over a space known for previous late night Shanghainese eateries. They've continued the tradition, being open until 3 a.m. The shen jian baos here — #135 on the menu, translated into English as cabbage with pork fried buns — are nothing fancy, but nicely done with some cabbage mixed in with the ground meat. If it's Shanghainese food you're craving after midnight, this is the place. 301 W. Valley Blvd., Suite 110, San Gabriel; 626-282-5953.
Located across the street from the strip mall housing Golden Deli, Emperor Noodles features a small menu of Shanghainese dishes, including what is translated into English here as a pan-fried pork bun. The bao itself is a larger and doughier and the filling — though well seasoned — gets somewhat lost. But with a nicely browned exterior, these are both quite tasty and very well-priced. Served four to an order for $4.99. 800 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; 626-281-2777.
If you want to see a version that is pure craftsmanship, almost a work of art, then head to Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village, a restaurant that may be known as much for its glossy magazine-like menu and interesting décor as its food. This is a more upscale restaurant and the shen jian bao reflects that. They arrive, almost too pretty to eat, browned to near perfection, with a quality pork filling and what seems like a perfect ratio of both doughiness to crunchiness and broth to meat to bun. You'll pay a bit more ($7.99), but they're worth it. 250 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; 626-282-1777.
The polar opposite of Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village in atmosphere, Shau May is a steam table joint housed in a former strip mall KFC. Proud of what they call Shanghai Pan Fried Small Bao (#79), a window banner proclaiming it the best in L.A. and two more banners inside tout their standout item. These are well browned, if not as spectacularly crafted or downright pretty as at Shanghai No. 1, and the meat to broth to bao ratio is spot on. Open until Midnight in Monterey Park, they also have locations in Alhambra, City of Industry and Temple City. Shau May: 104 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; 626-571-2727; (called Kang Kang Food Court), 9618 Las Tunas Dr., Temple City; 626-309-9799.