Just to reveal my bias upfront: Few things on earth bring me more pleasure than a plate of juicy pork dumplings straight from the steamer, something to keep in mind during my assessment of Shanghai Dumpling King's specialty. The Outer Richmond Chinese restaurant has long been the reigning monarch of the San Francisco soup dumpling scene, and has recently undergone some changes. The original Balboa street location just reopened after a two-month kitchen remodel, and in the meantime, the owners opened a second location on Monterey Street in Sunnyside. Early reports from tipsters and Internet message boards claimed that the original restaurant had "gone downhill" after its expansion and remodel — grumblings that I found without much merit. At both locations I discovered piles of fresh dumplings, helpful service, and happiness.
Shanghai Dumpling King is most famous for its xiao long bao, soup-filled pork dumplings popular in Shanghai that burst like savory Gushers when you bite into them. A good soup dumpling needs to have a wrapper hearty enough to withstand the journey from the bamboo steamer to your mouth, but not one so doughy that it overpowers the delicate flavor of the pork and soup within. The soup dumplings more than lived up to their reputation at the original Richmond spot — they had pliable wrappers puckered at the top like some new species of mollusk, containing a good amount of lightly seasoned broth and sweet pork that harmonized beautifully with the gingery black vinegar dipping sauce. At the Sunnyside location, they were more on the tough side, with not as much soup, a reminder that every second they sit after coming from the steamer counts against them. But despite the less-than-ideal texture, the new location's dumplings still delivered on flavor.
A standard order of 10 xiao long bao just scratches the surface of the Dumpling King's bounty. I marveled at the diversity of wrapper thickness and folding technique on the menu. Spicy pork-and-chive dumplings, steamed pockets of meat and greens in a slick of neon orange chile oil, were more interesting than the boiled pork-and-chive dumplings on their own; those had just-doughy-enough wrappers but fell a little flat despite a gingery kick. Spicy wontons, another menu favorite, had thinner, almost transluscent wrappers, and came doused in a spicy peanut sauce that made them seem more Southeast Asian than Chinese — not that we were complaining. Pan-fried pot stickers were large and luscious, with a crispy sear on each side. There are also crab-and-pork-soup dumplings, which had a strong, fishy taste; I would save $3 and order a second round of the standard xiao long bao instead.
Dumplings may be the reason to make the trek to the restaurant, and you could happily dine on them alone, but they only make up a small portion of the multi-page menu, which offers a survey of Chinese cuisine (Americanized dishes like General Tso's chicken and egg foo yung sit next to cow stomach and crispy eel). A cursory sampling of the rest of the menu at both locations revealed unremarkable Chinese-American fare; nothing that will change your life or expand your definitions of the cuisine, but certainly better than a place like Panda Express.
Shanghai-style pan-fried noodles were thick-cut, greasy, starchy, and satisfying, a step above your average chow mein. Sauteed green beans came fragrant with garlic, though they could have been fresher at the Balboa location (they had a crunch that suggested a previous stint in the freezer). Honey-glazed beef, a recommendation from a waiter, reminded me of kitschy Hawaiian food from the '50s suburbs: tender hunks of beef in a sweet honey glaze, seasoned with plenty of pepper, and mixed with sauteed red and green peppers. Ma po tofu was the biggest disappointment, with chunks of tofu drowning in chile oil, but that's always a dish hard to get right outside of a Szechuan restaurant. Even if you're stuffed, don't leave without sampling one of the sugar egg puffs, a light, sweet bit of fried dough reminiscent of a beignet.
The remodel of the Richmond location mostly focused on the kitchen. Its two rooms are still no-frills, with white walls and unadorned, numbered tables — not that you care once a bamboo steamer of the soup dumplings is placed in front of you. It's cash-only and BYOB, and most nights it's crowded with neighborhood families and dumpling fanatics. In the Sunnyside location, the crowd was mostly Asian, with more than one table ordering their meal in Chinese. It's slightly more upscale, too. There's carpet and an elaborate bamboo display up front, paper lanterns hang from the ceiling, and they take both credit cards (for orders over $20) and sell Tsing Tao and Sapporo.
With the majority of dishes under $10, a meal at either location is a bargain as much as a pleasure. Most dumplings are best moments after they're made, or so you tell yourself as you eat one or two more than your appetite allows, and spend the rest of the night trying to dispel the leaden mass of pork and rice dough in your stomach. Though in my experience, too many dumplings is always a mistake worth repeating.