Xiao Long Bao is a special kind of steamed dumpling you’ll only find on dim sum menus in Shanghai. It’s made of a thinner, chewier dough shell and filled with soup and a ball of pork (like what you’d find in a wonton), and is served with vinegar and hot sauce. Traditionally, it’s eaten all in one bite, but if you’re having trouble you can bite off the top of the dumpling, suck out the soup, and then put the rest in your mouth.
So where can you find these delicious Shanghai-style soup dumplings in Chicago’s (frozen) Chinatown?
I grabbed my friend Chenault, who spent over two months eating Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai this summer, and we set off to satisfy the craving.
Phoenix Restaurant has long been applauded as one of Chicago Chinatown’s best — just ask anyone in the dim sum lines for Saturday and Sunday brunch (…when it’s not frigid outside). You’ll find a solid portion of guests in the large dining room are speaking Mandarin or Cantonese — always a sign of authenticity — but you won’t be lost speaking English to your waiter or describing the dish you want.
Lao Shanghai is a part of a Chicago Chinatown chain — on your way there, you’ll pass sister restaurants Lao Beijing and Lao Sze Chuan. The majority of the clientele are white, and most of the menu seems to try to introduce Shanghai dishes to people who’ve never been to China. But Time Out Chicago is a fan, and the food is good albeit much higher priced than most in Chinatown. The place is small but quiet, and you’ll dine atop white tablecloths.
On paper, Lao Shanghai offers more authentic Xiao Long Bao: The dumpling shell was thinner, and it was accompanied by the traditional vinegar dipping sauce. An order of eight will cost you $4.95.
At Phoenix, the dumpling shell is a little thicker than it should be, and the accompanying sauces are just soy sauce and hot sauce. But the taste was more authentic: The broth and meat had the right combination of spices to bring Chenault straight back to her days in Shanghai. Lastly, the temperature — burning hot — was also authentic. And we can’t read the dim sum sheet, but grabbing whatever you want off the dim sum carts will leave you satisfied for $15 or less.
While Lao Shanghai had a lot of the authentic touches, taste is everything — and in that respect, Phoenix had all the spices down. Chenault and I will be returning to weekend dim sum at Phoenix, and we will continue to flag down the first waitress who leaves the kitchen announcing she has Xiao Long Bao.
–Tara for TKGO