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Xiao Long Bao

The Scoop on Shanghai Soup Dumplings

In the pantheon of Chinese cuisine, few foods inspire as much passion as xiao long bao, or Shanghai soup dumplings. XLB fans will intensely debate the merits of the perfect specimen, from how the meat filling is mixed (50 strokes in one direction, for a small batch) to the number of folds in the dumpling's topknot (traditionally 16 to 18).

But for the less fanatic, the pursuit of XLB is simply about theater and sensory pleasure; the faintly sweet scent of hot bamboo as the steamer basket (the long in xiao long bao) arrives, and the dramatic whoosh of steam as the lid is lifted, revealing an array of symmetrically swirled sachets. Then, the best part: the heavy sag of the dumpling as you carefully maneuver it to your porcelain spoon, the tangy whiff of vinegar, and the burst of soup in that first bite.

Kingdom of Dumpling on Taraval Street and 27th Avenue ranks as the city's top xiao long bao spot. This tiny eight-table establishment reliably produces dumplings with a pleasantly doughy skin that's not too thick, a generous gush of soup, and savory pork filling with a hint of ginger ($5 for six).

The owners are solicitous to XLB newbies, providing tips on how to pick up the dumplings without bursting them, and on the proper eating procedure (place the dumpling in a spoon, nibble a hole in the side and suck out the broth, or poke a hole with your chopstick and slurp up the soup).

Kingdom of Dumpling is also one of the few establishments to offer steamed and pan-fried variations, both served with the classic accompaniment of black vinegar and finely shredded ginger. Other dumplings are also on offer, including sui gao (boiled dumplings), with fillings, such as chive and shrimp ($7 for twelve); as well as other Northern Chinese dishes, such as thick, chewy QQ noodles ($7). And since you know you'll be craving them later that week, be sure to pick up a packet of frozen XLB to take home.

Located at a slightly bigger, although similarly crowded and scruffy, space on Balboa Street and 34th Avenue, Shanghai Dumpling King's xiao long bao are a touch smaller and enclosed in thin, smooth-textured wrappers ($5.50 for ten). The soup and meat filling is on the slightly sweet side, closer to how they taste in Wuxi, a town outside Shanghai which reputedly is the true birthplace of XLB.

A tasty variation is the Hung Zhou crab and pork steamed dumpling ($9 for eight). Topped with a telltale orange dot of crab roe, these have an intensely crabby flavor and a similarly abundant gush of soup. Shanghai Dumpling King offers a wide range of menu choices, from the authentic to the Americanized (such as egg foo young, $7 to $9). On the day we went, the proprietor peddled a tray of freshly-fried sugar egg puffs ($3 for three), giant poufs of fried cruller-like goodness with bottoms that were almost juicy with oil (leave the bottoms behind and tear into the sugar-dusted tops and eggy interior). Shanghai Dumpling King is a dependable place to get your xiao long bao fix, and for those smurfing on an XLB high — or who just don't want to deal with the lines — it's also close to ShangHai House, another dumpling purveyor on Balboa.

In Chinatown, Bund Shanghai is the place to go for those seeking XLB and other Northern faves, such as scallion pancakes ($4). With its large, airy interior, the atmosphere is decidedly more upscale compared to the worn environs of Shanghai Dumpling King or Kingdom of Dumpling.

Bund Shanghai probably makes one of San Francisco's prettier xiao long bao ($7 for eight), beautifully whorled and petite enough to pop in your mouth whole, although this technique should only be employed when the dumplings have had a chance to cool. But there seems to be an inverse relationship between quality and ambiance in the SF xiao long bao universe. Like all the XLB on this list, the wrappers at Bund Shanghai were not overly doughy and the filling was tender. The critical difference is it soupiness, and we found a few duds in our basket.

With its ample rounds of ten, the dining room at Old Shanghai Restaurant on Geary Boulevard at 16th Avenue fills with extended Chinese families gathering for respectable Sunday dinners. As evidenced by the steamer baskets dotting the tables, the xiao long bao ($7.50 for eight) is a popular item, but unfortunately they are hit-and-miss. The wrappers are delicate, and the filling is savory, but despite many positive reports, the XLBs do not offer a reliable rush of soup. But even if it's an off night, diners hankering for a taste of the old country can dive into a large selection of Shanghai dim sum, such as boiled cassia blossom sweet rice wine ball ($7.50), a comforting porridge-like soup with wine-soaked rice, mochi balls, and a dusting of minced yellow flowers.

Compared with other establishments, the XLB at Old Shanghai are on the pricier side, but you're paying for some nice touches, such as the elegant table linens and the complementary saucer of roasted peanuts, seaweed, and dried fish that you can nibble on while waiting for your order.

Several Chinese restaurants list XLB as a type of dim sum, but don't be misled. Dim sum is a Southern Chinese genre, so if you are itching for xiao long bao you'll be disappointed if you show up at one of the city's ubiquitous traditional dim sum houses (with the exception of Yank Sing, but that restaurant is hardly traditional). But fear not, just head to Kingdom of Dumpling or Shanghai Dumpling King, two destinations than can dependably fulfill — and perpetuate — your XLB addiction.