You could certainly argue that xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumplings stuffed with pork) are right up there in the pantheon of chocolate truffles, soft poached eggs, and molecular gastronomy's beloved liquid center amuse bouches for the one bite treat that sends out a flood of powerfully flavored liquid after the outer surface has been punctured. They sport the ultimate adrenaline rush of eating. In a meal of many dishes, they are the boom moment, the one concentrated bite that's like scoring a game-winning header after 86 minutes of a tight World Cup match.
Having just recently sampled various examples of xiao long bao at its historic source in Shanghai, I hustled over to Millbrae's quaint Main Street USA-style downtown in the shadow of SFO, home to one of the Peninsula's gold standards for the subject since 2000, Shanghai Dumpling Shop.
Not surprisingly, the first section of the extensive but not phonebook-long menu (only 175 dishes!) is "Bun and Dumpling." Then under that heading the very first item is Shanghai Steamed Dumplings (Pork) ($9.95), coming ten to an order. There is also the option for the dumplings to be stuffed with both crab meat and pork. Feel free to dabble in other choices like the pan fried pork buns (more Hong Kong than Shanghai) and green onion pancake. Just remember, there's a reason every table has at least one order of the xiao long bao and it's number one on the menu. Take the cue.
Xiao long bao, like all dumplings, are quite simple while being profound. The skins are nothing special ingredient-wise, just flour and water. Yet from those two ingredients comes a wide array of dumpling appearances and styles, ranging wildly in size and pleating (folds and curves). In general, the higher concentration of pleats and the crisp, clearer the pleats are, the higher caliber and elegant the dumpling. Some of the dumplings you'll see during dim sum at high-end Michelin starred establishments in Hong Kong are ornate enough to service as decorations in a Versailles sitting room.
Many xiao long bao specialists actually have a window for diners to peer in on the spectacle of a robotic-like labor intensive filling and folding operation like at the world's master of the art Din Tai Fung (it's strange how a Taiwan-based restaurant empire perfected this Shanghai dumpling!) That's not the case here. You're here to eat. The show is the dumplings, not their formative period.
The filling consists of two parts. One is a ball of ground pork combined with some green onion and ginger. The broth added is a stick of pork broth gelatin (sometimes enhanced by chicken and even shrimp) that then melts in the course of steaming to become the soup. That's the dumpling. All that's left is a small bowl of vinegar and strands of ginger for dipping.
My very first glance when the steam disappeared from Shanghai Dumpling Shop's xiao long bao were their size. They're the same height but wider than any I encountered in Shanghai. Not by much but enough centimeters to be noticeable. There were plenty of pleats, though the creases weren't strongly pronounced.
The eating method is more complex than the dumplings' composition. After delivering the dumplings to my table, the waiter warned that they were very hot and I must wait. Yet, every article on xiao long bao implores diners not to wait long since the dumplings are best when the skin is softest and the broth must be consumed at least warm without burning your mouth. Being a diplomat, I find the sweet spot to be more than five minutes, less than ten minutes after delivery.
In theory, it's proper practice to dip dumplings in the vinegar, place in the spoon, puncture a tiny hole in the skin for broth to sit in the bottom of the spoon, garnish with ginger, and slurp/bite everything as one. Repeat. It's brilliant. But it's not as easy as it sounds since the dumplings sometimes have a mind of their own with soup often escaping prematurely.
Shanghai Dumpling Shop's xiao long bao presented a broth of a distinctive porky-salty character similar to bacon, accented by subtle ginger tones. Meanwhile the larger than normal pork filling could pass for a mini meatball "polpette" and beautifully complimented the broth.
My only slight faux pas was that three of the dumplings had slightly attached. Once you picked up one dumpling, a little piece of the neighbor's skin would go with it, opening the opportunity for very minor broth spillage.
But the skins were nicely placed in the middle of the thickness spectrum being doughy and slightly chewy. Din Tai Fung's fabled skin never punctures without pressure but is so thin it's almost transparent, a true engineering feat. Shanghai Dumpling Shop's are a little denser and don't quite melt like butter instantly.
Do note some items at the restaurant have MSG but the menu encourages diners to alert their waiters when ordering should they desire none used while cooking. And don't be alarmed by the Cheesecake Factory size portions of other dishes. Probably 95 percent of tables leave lunch today with lunch tomorrow in tow.
But they're definitely not taking home extra xiao long bao unless they were smart and bought extra orders for the week, or better yet, for the flight in three hours. However, you don't need a flight as an excuse to enjoy dumplings in Millbrae. They are one of the great one bite treats around and Shanghai Dumpling Shop's xiao long bao could even compete with Shanghai's best.
455 Broadway, Millbrae; (650) 697-0682.