Just as hot dogs are a staple in America, gelato is synonymous with Italy, baguettes are all the rage in France and ham is a favorite in Spain, some of the world’s best dumplings are in Shanghai. Whether you prefer xiao long bao (soup dumplings), sheng jian (fried dumplings) or jiao zi (steamed dumplings), the city serves some gems among tiny street stands and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. But how does one go about finding the best dumplings in town without waiting in line for hours at Yuyuan Garden’s famous Nanxiang Mantou Dian? Stick with us and we’ll reveal a few hidden treasures.
Just north of People’s Square, across from the Radisson Blu Hotel Shanghai New World and Le Royal Méridien, you’ll find Jia Jia Tang Bao, a tiny spot with a line out the door. Be sure to get there early, as the pork-only dumplings usually sell out by 1 p.m. Start off with a seaweed-and-ginger soup, then settle in for several baskets of pork and egg, crab meat or chicken and mushroom xiao long bao. Beware as steamy hot baskets of eight to 10 dumplings arrive at your table (ordering three baskets for two people should be plenty). Using your chopsticks, peel them from their crate with care and sit them in the provided small bowls of vinegar for at least a minute before downing them in one satisfying gulp (avoid nibbling on the dumpling, otherwise the succulent soupy center will spill out).
Across town in the historic former French Concession, you’ll find another locals’ spot, Nanjing Soup Dumplings, at Jianguo Lu and Gao’an Lu. This unassuming little restaurant is open for business around the clock, churning out stellar pork or vegetable xiao long bao. The fragile dumplings here are best enjoyed when dunked in vinegar mixed with la jiao (a spicy concoction of red pepper you’ll find in a metal tin at the table). It’s a favorite of expats seeking late-night eats (Hengshan Lu, one of Shanghai’s most popular bar streets, is just a five-minute walk away); a hungry group can easily rack up 10 crates. Wash them down with a Tsingtao, China’s light beer.
If you’re in search of sheng jian bao with a bit of Old World atmosphere, head to Dahuchun at 71 Yunnan Nan Lu near Jingling Dong Lu. It’s about a five-minute taxi ride or 20-minute walk from the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund. On a street lined with lanterns and ornaments, this historic café is one of the city’s oldest traditions. Order sets of six or 10 dumplings from the counter — no need for sides or soups. First-timers are quick to burn their tongue, as these oily meat packages topped with scallions come out of the fryer piping hot, but if you stab the top, you’ll release the steam and allow the dumpling to cool. Hold it over your plate as you eat and grab extra napkins — this sloppy treat is best enjoyed without spilling it on your lap, which is not an easy task.
You’ll find the classiest dumplings around at Din Tai Fung in the Portman Complex (which also houses Four-Star The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai). This famous dim sum restaurant is ideal for brunching with friends and is packed on weekends, so be sure to make a reservation. While the cost of each plate is triple that of any street joint, the dumplings here are absolutely divine. Each perfect pouch is painstakingly prepared by hand; filled with rich, delicious soup; and pinched at the top. If you accidentally puncture the wrapping, politely slurp the soup out before it leaks out onto your plate. Varieties here include pork and chicken, and sides of sautéed veggies or sweet southern-style baozi (pork buns) round out the flavor palate nicely.
Photos Courtesy of Liz Grabenstein