What: Soup dumplings are what New Yorkers call xiao long bao, those steamed, soupy, traditionally pork-filled buns from Shanghai, China, with the telltale pinch (and, it’s said, 18 folds) at their crowns. The “soup” comes from pork aspic, which is placed inside along with some meat (or crab, another popular filling) and becomes nice and liquidy when heated. Steamed and served in small bamboo baskets, soup dumplings are popular in New York City’s myriad Chinatown Shanghai restaurants—particularly the older ones that predate the modern consumer’s hungrier quest for authenticity (which may explain the Westernized name). In any case, of all the Chinese dishes in all the Chinese restaurants of New York’s three Chinatown hubs—in lower Manhattan, the oldest one (dating roughly to the mid-19th century), Flushing (Queens), and Sunset Park (Brooklyn)—this is the most New York of them all.
Like pizza and bagels before them, soup dumplings are a beloved topic for debate: who makes the best, who’s gone downhill, etc. This is no trivial discussion—average soup dumplings are just OK, while the good ones, with just the right ratio of thin-skinned dough to hot, savory, mouth-filling broth, are downright transcendent.
Good to know: Robert Zimmerman famously drew a cartoon on the subject, but it is worth noting the proper way to eat these things. Using the provided tongs or your chopsticks, first transfer the dumpling to your spoon. Then gently nibble a hole in the skin, through which the broth can safely trickle out—if you go too big, it’ll flood out and burn your mouth. (Worse, you could lose some of the soup.) Slurp some broth out, add a little black vinegar or chili sauce if you wish, then go in for a bite—or take the whole thing if it’s small. An alternative to nibbling is to use your chopstick to poke a little hole in the dumpling.
Where: New Yorkers (and New York media) love to debate which restaurants have the best soup dumplings and which have gone downhill. We’re not here to say what’s “the best,” but we have eaten our fair share of these over the past decade. In truth our most favorite spot for them closed a few years ago—but lately we like the soup dumplings at 456 Shanghai Cuisine (212-964-0003; 69 Mott St., betw. Canal & Bayard Sts., map), the 2011-opened descendent of an earlier 456 restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown. (The New York Times has given a nod to these dumplings as well, if you care about that sort of thing.)
When: Daily, 11am-10pm
Order: The “juicy pork buns soup dumplings” ($5.25 for eight), and good luck having just one basket. They’re small here, but the upside of that is, after the ever-important introductory nibble, you can pop the whole thing into your mouth—instant gratification! The dumplings are just thin-skinned enough to complement their silky, juicy, porky innards—not too chewy and doughy; not too thin to make the basket-to-spoon transfer a risky mess. They’re just right.
Alternatively: Right down the street, we also really like the soup dumplings like Shanghai Asian Manor (21 Mott St., at Mosco St., map)—see pic here—while Shanghai Café (100 Mott St., betw. Canal & Hester Sts., map) has earned top marks (for Manhattan’s Chinatown) among the Serious Eats crew and others. Elsewhere in Manhattan, there are great soup dumplings to be found in the East Village at The Bao (212-388-9238; 13 St. Mark's Place, betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves., map); get the pork ones, and save room for the chocolate dessert variety. In Flushing, Queens, we like Nan Xiang Dumpling House (38-12 Prince St., map), but hear from a trusted source that the pork-and-crab specimens at Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao (59-16 Main St., map), the original outpost of the EV's The Bao, are superior (as well as those at Diverse Dim Sum, inside Flushing Mall (133-31 39th Ave., map), which is much easier to access from the 7 train). Finally, you can’t talk soup dumplings without mentioning Joe’s Shanghai (9 Pell St., betw. Doyers St. & Bowery, map), the restaurant responsible for making New Yorkers crazy for the things beginning in the mid-1990s. If you don’t like the idea of competing for space with a mob of tourists, though, you might consider trekking out to Joe’s Queens branch (136-21 37th Ave., Flushing, map).