Sometimes, I really should know better.
A month ago, some friends and I went on the prowl for soup dumplings near the office, having caught word that a Shanghainese restaurant near I-90 had a terrific rendition of xiao long bao. For some reason, I ignored that voice in my head telling me that great soup dumplings (along with great dim sum) simply don't exist in the Seattle area. I really should have listened to that inner voice. I won't mention the venue we visited (I don't like posting negative reviews)... suffice it to say that instead of delicate dumplings filled with explosive broth, we had mass-produced, frozen, gummy/chewy nuggests of disappointment which ultimately sent two in our group home ill for the day.
Yes, such exploits are best reserved for Vancouver... or more specifically, Richmond, our own little culinary mecca of Chinese food to the north. For that purpose (and really that purpose only), we hopped in the car and happily drove 150 miles, pulling into a nondescript strip mall for what we'd heard were some of the best soup dumplings in all of the greater Vancouver area. Destination: Chen's Shanghai.
Within 30 seconds of being seated, I knew we were in for a treat. Through a window into the left side of the kitchen, we watched as a woman deftly formed and rolled out handmade dumpling wrappers, one after another, with nothing more than the dough, a weathered wooden dowel, a rolling pin and an experienced touch.
This hand crafted care translates directly into the resulting xiao long bao. Unlike lesser versions, the dumpling skin is both resilient enough to hold the broth without disintegrating (no cabbage lining the bottom of the steamer here) while simultaneously being delicate enough to practically melt away in your mouth upon your first bite. The broth is clean and pure, bursting (literally) with glorious seasoned pork flavor... but not at all heavy. Amazing. Our eyes are bugging out as we have half a dozen each.
These may very well be the best I've ever had... certainly the most extraordinary dumpling wrapper I've ever consumed for xiao long bao. All served in the most ordinary of restaurant settings, with a customer base full of regulars who know the owner and a staff that still warmly welcomes first timers. They know how good their dumplings are, and their happy to watch people experience it for themselves.
They say that Shanghai Wonderful, around the corner, has xiao long bao that can go head to head with the ones here. We'll head there next time and find out if that's possible.
Have I mentioned how much I love Vancouver and Richmond?
8095 Park Road