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Monday, February 16, 2009

Xiǎolóngbāo Crawl.

Xiǎolóngbāo means "little basket bun". It’s a soup dumpling from the Southern provinces of China. The skin is smooth and somewhat translucent, rather than dumplings most are accustomed which are white and fluffy.They are traditionally filled with soup and meat, but variations include seafood and vegetarian fillings, as well as other possibilities.

I had the pleasure to do a xiǎolóngbāo (XLB) crawl and to my delight it was awesome. Our first stop was Mama Lu's in Monterey Park. From there we walked to Giang Nan, Dean Sin World and FC Shanghai. We had a party of 8 which is a nice number of people when eating XLB but in our case since this was a crawl it meant we would only be ordering a sampling of the pork and crab at all four stops. This way we could experience the way each place makes their XLB.

First Stop: Mama Lu’s. Let me tell you, all eight of us were starving in anticipation of having good XLB and Mama Lu’s delivered. The dumplings were put into the steamed bamboo baskets, and before long they were brought to our table. The pork flavor dumplings and the crab were richly comforting in their own broth. When eating XLB it’s nice to take a bite and sip out the broth. Don’t forget to drizzle it with chiankiang vinegar and slivers of ginger which was provide upon ordering. They were so good that I wanted to stay seated and enjoy the wonderful rich flavors that Mama Lu’s has but we had a plan and we were going to stick to it.
Mama Lu's
153 E Garvey Avenue
Monterey Park, CA 91755
(626) 307-5700
Second Stop: Dean Sin World. This is a small place with limited seating but it has the best XLB by far. They are open 6 days a week, 8 am – 6pm, closed on Monday. This place was so accommodating and the friendliness of the place was off-the-charts. When we explained to the owner that we would only be sampling and that we had two more places to go to she brought out two types of baked buns(dianxin) to try. There was a red bean and a cabbage (sauerkraut) and while these were good we were on a mission and did not want to deviate from our goal and taint our palate. But, we also couldn’t be rude so we ate them. Finally, the star of the show arrived as nice basket of steamed pork dumplings. They looked quite plain, but as soon as you bite into one, you awaken the flavors in the slick broth and the nice texture of the pork filling. Within seconds, your mouth was happy and you knew this was the place to beat. The standard had been set.

Third stop:Giang Nan. This is a bigger place but it was the least understanding. When we explained that we needed a table for eight and that we would only be doing a tasting it did not go over well. We asked for two orders (8 in each basket) of the seafood XLB because they only had one kind. Since the XLB seemed to be getting better as the day went we were expecting it to be just as good if not better. When the first basket arrived our disappointment began. The fillings were very fishy and some had no flavor. It was like no two dumplings were the same.At that point we didn’t even want our next order but before we could say anything it came out and no one wanted to touch it.

Fourth stop: FC Shanghai. This is a nice sized place with pink décor but because the mood had changed from our third experience we were not happy crawlers anymore. Nevertheless, the staff was friendly and the dumplings were good.

What I learned from this experience is that xiǎolóngbāo for breakfast or lunch is a casual and often chaotic affair. You have to try different places to get the full experience of what a dumpling should taste like. If trying an XLB crawl limit yourself to a group of four people because of all the confusion when a group of eight sits to a table and the staff is expecting a sizeable order. The whole experience cost $11 per person and that was including tax and tip.

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