I'm stuffed. Like the bao I was looking for.
Is there such a thing as the Best Xiaolongbao in Shanghai?
I was curious myself. Three "highly recommended" shops and 34 of the little buggers later, I've formed my conclusion. Kinda.
But first, the theoretical experience of a great xiaolongbao meal:
A basket arrives on your table. The waitress/waiter lifts the cover of the bamboo steamer; the steam wafts upwards, slowly unveiling perfectly identical dumplings arranged in a circular fashion. You pick one up by the 88 (or however many) folds gathered on the top of the dumpling and place it on a porcelain spoon. Garnish with a splattering of rice wine vinegar. You nibble your way through the impossibly thin, translucent skin, and a burst of intensely flavoured broth spurts from within, enveloping the insides of your mouth with molten bliss. You greedily wolf down the rest of it, grunting with satisfaction as the combination of seasoned minced pork and crab stuffing effortlessly slides down your throat, its passage lubricated by the aforementioned hit of liquid goodness. Lick the spoon to complete the experience.
The three "highly recommended" shops from Timeout Shanghai and various locals:
Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant (Nanxiang Mantou Dian)
Location: 85 Yuyuan Lao Lu, Yuyuan Metro Station
Verdict: Come on a weekend and you'll join the masses of tour bus folk queuing up for 30 mins just to get to the ground floor counter. I really don't know what all the fuss is about. The skin of the bao is way too thick. I couldn't detect any hint of crab and some of the bao didn't contain any broth. Sacrilegious! If you must try this place, come around 8pm on a weekday night. The 5 min queue is much more bearable for the mediocre-ish experience.
Jia Jia Tang Bao
Location: 90 Huanghe Lu, People's Square Metro Station
Verdict: This is the venerable hole-in-the-wall-been-there-for-50-years type of place. Best of the lot in my opinion. Ask for the ones with pork and crab filling. They use real crab roe and it really shows. Everything's freshly made, and it's good stuff. Best part: not much of a queue to speak of. And crowd turnover is reassuringly rapid.
Ding Xin Di
Location: Stall A106 in Basement Foodcourt of Zhaofeng Plaza, 999 Changning Lu. Use Exit 7 at the Zhongshan Park Metro and you're right outside Zhaofeng Plaza.
Verdict: Pretty sterile environs given that it's in a food court. Decent skin and filling though. The only complaint I had was that the top part of the bao, where the folds are gathered was bit tough. I think they don't make the bao fresh due to the lower volumes and you can tell, if you're being finicky.
All in all, did Shanghai's xiaolongbao blow my mind?
I'm afraid it's not super. I think we can find similar quality in Din Tai Fung outlets. Which is probably like heresy to the Shanghainese given that, you know, Din Tai Fung is from Taiwan.
Oh well. The question needed to be answered. At least I'm well fed. You could do a lot worse with the RMB80 (USD12.50) or so I spent in all three places. Combined.
Some reference photos:
I was supposed to post reviews of four shops, but arrived at Wan Shou Zhai (123 Shanyin Lu, near Hongkou Stadium Metro) just before they closed for the night. After spending an hour getting there. Curses.
I did, however, stumble upon some properly local nosh. It's like turbocharged yakitori i.e. grilled stuff on a stick, but jazzed up with local sauces and spices which the "pit master" slathers on before slapping them on the grill. I had a combo of meats which I can only classify as "various". I think there was liver. And the heart I'm 90% sure is mammalian. Ok, like 70% sure.
Not for the faint-of-heart and weak-of-stomach. Delicious though, if you're brave enough.