Slurping xiao long bao: Visiting 6 soup dumpling restaurants in Manila
Over the past weeks, I must have taken over a couple hundred photos of the xiao long bao, that delicious and delightful invention that bathes a dense meatball in a savory, piping hot broth, all contained in a quivering, translucent skin.
They don't look like much, these plump, sometimes pasty, and cute little things. But like all the most wonderful things, the best part is within.
It began with an early trip to Din Tai Fung's first Philippine branch in SM Mega Fashion Hall, almost two weeks before it formally opened. There, guided by candle light and amid the taut anticipation of the trained staff, I tore open my first Din Tai Fung soup dumpling and made quick work of it, with gusto.
I wanted to find more. Over the next two weeks, I held quite a few in my hands, testing their lumpy and substantial weight, peering over the bamboo basket for a first look after the lid is lifted – sometimes with a flourish, sometimes not, and always I would be hit in the face with a gust of steam.
Many, many restaurants in Manila serve xiao long bao. Photographers Paolo Abad and Alecs Ongcal and I visited just 6 between the 3 of us. This is what we found.
- How much: Pork xiao long bao: P160 for 5 pieces, P310 for 10 pieces
- Where: Ground floor, Mega Fashion Hall
A staple and an institution when it comes to xiao long bao, the dumpling giant is now in Manila, and well-prepared, it seems, for the hordes of hungry diners braving the long queue for a taste. A precise, efficient ordering and paying system shortens waiting time, shrinking the line and putting the food in front of you very quickly.
And true to the hype, the dumpling is the valedictorian of the group, the A student who never got her uniform dirty, the one who beat you in every test. Deep, distinct folds at the top of the dumpling keep all its contents sealed tightly. Pearly and pale skin sags to support the party inside, a meatball floating in a miniature lake of its own soup.
The soup is something else – solid and gelatinous as it's prepared, then a rich, oozy broth as it's steamed. It leaves your lips sticky, and the flavor, though by no means oppressive, is full-bodied with its own lurking intensity.
I've written more about the Din Tai Fung experience and its menu here.
- How much: Pork xiao long bao: P248 for 8 pieces
- Where: 115 Connecticut Street, North East Greenhills, San Juan, Metro Manila. With branches at SM Aura, SM Mega Fashion Hall, SM Mall of Asia, SM North Edsa (The Block), and Glorietta 2
Lugang made waves when it opened in 2010 – and its longevity (a number of branches all over Manila have since popped up) speaks to the quality of the food.
I've come here too many times to count. I can't speak for the other branches because I frequent the original in the Philippines – the one in Greenhills. Many restaurants have come and gone in the Greenhills area, but Lugang, along Connecticut Street, is firmly entrenched both in location and in its place on the roster of many a family's go-to list of restaurants.
And with good reason. The soup dumplings are lovely, made with care and delivered quickly. You can clearly taste the difference between the meatball and the broth; it isn't spongy or too fatty, which can cause the inside to break apart in an unpleasant, oily mess. None of this.
The broth is also nice and makes an impression, leaving lips sticky, though flavor-wise, it's lighter and not quite as full as Din Tai Fung's. Still, you won't be able to have just one.
Where soup dumplings are the star at Din Tai Fung, I think the other dishes at Lugang are absolutely worth a visit. In particular, the beef with Chinese crullers had my lunch companion dancing a little jig at the table. I've seen that same jig from many guests I've dined with at this place over time.
And there is an impressive menu of drinks, from boba tea to fruit shakes and smoothies, to choose from, along with a dessert listing that features the towering ice kachang, a beautiful and somewhat intimidating wall of beans, beans, beans.
Crystal Jade Shanghai Delights
- How much: Pork xiao long bao: P188 for 5 pieces
- Where: Greenhills Shopping Center, beside Theater Mall
Just standing before Crystal Jade brings back a searing and visceral memory. It is 2010 again and I'm standing in an unmoving queue, waiting for a chance to try the famous hand-pulled noodles and soup dumplings from Singapore.
When it's my turn, I ask for an order of the dumplings not freshly made, but frozen. I wanted to take it home to my family, the way my father had always done for us.
Sadly, we never could reheat it just right at home, and I settled for eating them in a bowl, so as not to waste a single drop of the broth. I took my parents to the restaurant another time, and they enjoyed that.
But like that dormant memory of an oversteamed xiao long bao, a recent visit to Crystal Jade left me with a vague sense of disappointment, the kind you get when something just isn't as good as you remembered it to be.
It began with the skin, whiter, not as translucent, and a little damp to the touch. Taste-wise, it's pleasant enough, although the broth is not the most toothsome, the lightest and thinnest of the soup dumpings I've sampled. And the meatball was softer than most, to my taste.
The xiao long bao here is eclipsed by the other items on the menu, far more consistent in quality. The crispy eel is still very good – sweet, sinful, and savory all at the same time. And Crystal Jade most definitely can do wontons – the simple wontons and soup dish is filling and comforting. The peanut noodle is great for those looking for something different; the peanut flavor isn't overpowering, and the serving is generous. (READ: Truffle, shrimp, cheese xiao long bao at Crystal Jade)
- How much: Pork xiao long bao: P165 for 6 pieces, P275 for 10 pieces
- Where: Branch photographed below is The Podium branch. With branches at Powerplant Mall, The Fort, Eastwood, Greenbelt, Lucky Chinatown, Alabang Town Center.
There are a number of Shi Lin branches now across the metro – and one just in The Podium, where I popped in for lunch one day with officemates. We often come for our fix of Taiwanese favorites.
The classic pork soup dumplings are the best of the dumpling offerings on the menu.
But I think the best of what I've tasted here so far are actually the vegetable dumplings, covered in garlicky, intense spicy sauce.
The Shi Lin xiao long bao are all right, perhaps as a nice starter. I have to say that the dumplings have always been consistently made, though the experience of eating it is not quite as indelible.
- How much: Pork xiao long bao: 4 pieces, P100
- Where: Along Mabini Street, Malate, Manila
Every Sunday, my father would go out to lunch with his buddies, and on some Sundays, he would bring home an order or two of Suzhou's soup dumplings – the first of its kind I had ever tried. He always knew the best way to heat it up so the skin wouldn't break open.
Before the long queues and the hashtags and the hype, before I could even properly write xiao long bao in Chinese, there was my father and his gift.
I could not make the time to visit Suzhou again this year. But I knew it had to be part of this list.
Alecs, our friend and photographer, reported back with lovely things to say about Suzhou. She visited the one on Mabini Street, a 24-hour branch with plenty of space for a lot of diners.
The meat in the dumplings, she said, is quite substantial, dense and larger, with a satisfying soup. One order comes with 4 pieces.
"Mabini Street is a busy main road in the morning and alive with bars and clubs at night. Suzhou is open 24 hours. It's quite big inside; there are a few tables set outside also," says Alecs.
Dong Bei dumplings
- How much: Pork xiao long bao: 6 pieces, P120
- Where: Along Yuchengo Street, Binondo, Manila
We've written about Dong Bei before, included in this list of delicious Binondo food discoveries, which we experienced as part of the food expert Ivan Man Dy's food tour, Old Manila Walks.
They make their dumplings fresh daily, and are well known for the veggie-and-pork dumplings, said to be pillow-soft and bursting with generous filling.
But this time, I asked Alecs to sample their soup dumplings specifically. Like Suzhou, she says, the dumplings here are satisfying, though the broth is clear and a little thinner.
Like some of the other locations, you can see the dumplings being made and really appreciate the work it takes to create them.
Why do we visit the same restaurants over and over? For different reasons. To ease that craving, satisfy curiosity, try a new product, chase a fading memory. To me, that plump, juicy, pearly xiao long bao represents a lifetime of happy family dinners and weekend surprises.
What food creates that same feeling for you?
If we've missed your favorite xiao long bao spot, let us know in the comments below or on Facebook – don't forget to send us a picture!
Until then, happy eating – wherever you choose to dine. – Rappler.com