Whether slurped down during a hungover dim sum expedition, demolished after an afternoon run, or eaten as part of an elaborate multi-course meal, Chinese dumplings are some of the best comfort foods around.
San Francisco and the East Bay both boast quality Chinese destinations, many of them slinging their own variations on xiao long bao, shu mai, and a plethora of other dough-rapped delicacies, the simplest (and often most satisfying) of which are shuijiao, or boiled dumplings. With little oil or broth to get in the way of the supple wrapper and flavorful filling, these slippery, starchy treats are a fine way to establish a restaurant's dumpling finesse. In order to find the best in the Bay, we dropped into two perennial favorites: S.F.'s Kingdom of Dumpling and Oakland's Shan Dong.
Kingdom of Dumpling: Pork and Napa Cabbage Dumplings ($5.95 for 12)
Kingdom of Dumpling is the definition of a hole-in-the-wall. The diminutive restaurant at 27th and Taraval in Parkside is often cramped, hot, and a filled with the scent of smoking fry oil. When eating there, you'll likely bump elbows with several strangers, and maybe even share one of the tiny tables encircled with far too many chairs. But don't be dissuaded. There are dumplings to eat.
Many visitors to Kingdom jump straight to the elegant Shanghai xiao long bao, it would be a mistake to miss their extensive (read: 19 dumplings long) menu of Nothern-style shuijiao. Fillings range from the familiar, like pork and chives, to the novel, like chicken and corn . In the hopes of keeping comparisons simple, I ordered a platter of 12 pork and cabbage dumplings.
The small dumplings arrive seconds from the pot, pouring steam out onto the table. While it's necessary to let them cool enough to steer clear of a tongue burn, don't wait too long -- these bites are best eaten piping hot. The pale, slippery wrapper has just a bit of chew, its delicate wall bowing to a gentle bite. A touch of molten broth awaits inside with the meatball of pork. At this early stage, the meat is still tender, but as the dumplings cool, it's necessary to dip in a bit of the vinegary ginger dipping sauce to moisten the pork. The texture will start to turn springy and just a little bit dry, and the intense savoriness will start to wane. If you're a fast eater, you may never notice the problems.
Shan Dong: Shan Dong Special Dumplings (Pork, Napa Cabbage, and Scallions) ($8.50 for 10)
Despite its popularity with East Bay diners, Shan Dong still manages to blend in to its block of 10th street in Oakland's Chinatown. I've walked right by it every time I've gone. Walk in, however, and the restaurant becomes much more distinctive. The dining room is anchored by an open noodle and dumpling kitchen in the front. If you're lucky, you'll show up as their noodle cook is rolling and cutting their hand-formed noodles at rapid-fire speed. Take a few steps in, and you may run into the table overflowing with takeout, or else the countless servers diving in and out of view.
Shan Dong specializes in those supple, chewy noodles in addition to boiled dumplings. Their selection is much shorter than Kingdom of Dumpling's, but they show greater precision with their fillings. The Shan Dong special dumplings filled with pork, cabbage, and scallions are brilliantly seasoned, with each bite abounding with the flavor of the vegetables just as much as the meat. The wrapper is filled to the brim with the tender filling -- and the pork mixture is far from a springy meatball. Shan Dong's wrapper is thicker than Kingdom's, and the fusion point on top is almost -- but not quite -- gummy. A dip into the vinegar sauce adds heat along with tartness, enhancing the mild flavor of the wrapper.
At $0.85 per dumpling, Shan Dong's specialty is far pricier than Kingdom's (they're a meager $0.49 each), but are the worth the extra cost? Let's break it down:
Wrapper: Kingdom of Dumpling
Filling Flavor: Shan Dong
Filling Texture: Shan Dong
Dipping Sauce: Shan Dong
Value: Kingdom of Dumpling
The winner? Oakland takes it this time: Shan Dong bests the Kingdom by a hair.