[The Bao. All photos by Robert Sietsema]
It's been nearly 20 years since Joe's Shanghai in Flushing introduced xiao long bao — sometimes known as "soup dumplings" or "little juicy buns" — to New York City. Filled with a greasy, scalding gravy, these mushroom-shaped dumplings became an immediate hit, so that nowadays even neighborhood Chinese restaurants feature them. What constitutes a good soup dumpling? Well, the skin should be thin, so that the liquid inside bulges but does not erupt, until you nip off the top and suck it out. These dumplings were invented a century ago in the town of Nanxiang, near Shanghai, utilizing a technical innovation whereby the noodle-dough enclosure was filled with a lump of fat that was solid at room temperature, but liquified when the dumplings were steamed. In addition to gravy, the first juicy buns were stuffed with a mixture of pork and crab, a protein pairing at the heart of Shanghai cuisine.
Now a new restaurant has appeared on St. Marks specializing in xiao long bao. The Bao features the standard pork-and-crab and pork-only dumplings at $9.95 and $7.95 for six, respectively. That price is consistent with the cost at Shanghai restaurants around town, such as Full House on the Bowery, which previously had the best soup dumplings. Now The Bao has edged it out. The Bao's dumplings are gossamer-thin, yet hold together magnificently, even when grasped with the metal tongs provided to tease them out of the steamer. It's worth the extra cash for the crab-containing variety. Note that these dumplings are perhaps a smidgen smaller than the ones at other Shanghai joints. That's OK, because you're paying for superior dumpling technique.
The place just opened on the north side of St. Marks, in a walk-up premises with plenty of picture windows. It has a full menu of other Chinese dishes, though a rather odd one. There are lots of Sichuan standards on the menu — as if the Bao were looking enviously at the success of Grand Sichuan just up the street – plus a plethora of Cantonese ones. A quick check of the Sichuan dishes revealed they were properly spicy — but very shy on Sichuan peppercorns. Another quirk of the menu are lots and lots of vegetarian dishes.
Though this may not be the best Chinese restaurant in the area, it has the best soup dumplings. Not content to offer the usual two varieties, the Bao embroiders on the formula by inventing some new ones. My crew and I tried every soup dumpling on the menu — of which there were three we'd never seen before. One adds wasabi to the filling, which is an interesting variation, making us wonder if the chef is Japanese, or at least Taiwanese, while another infuses the gravy with chili oil and chile flakes. The menu warns this variation is "extremely spicy," though, in truth, it's only moderately so. The strangest variation the place has come up with on the standard Shanghai soup dumpling is a dessert version ($6.95), smaller and filled with chocolate and banana. What a crazy idea! But probably worth ordering if only for the shock value. It might make you wonder, is Max Brenner an investor?
On a first visit we did try the standard pot sticker dumplings, which were compact and porky, with little vegetable matter inside. At six for $6.95, they were also a little on the expensive side. A dish with the quizzical name of "iced tomato" ($7.95), turned out to be skinned quarter tomatoes lounging in what tasted like the syrup from a can of lichee nuts. It was wonderfully refreshing, believe it or not. A plate of cucumbers in garlic — a Sichuan standard that functions as a cooling antidote to spicy food — was amplified with fiery red Thai chiles. Once again, where are these ideas coming from? 13 St. Marks Place, 212-388-9238.
About three weeks earlier another dumpling joint flung its doors open around the corner on Second Avenue. Using their mom's recipes, sisters Marian and Hannah Cheng began making Chinese dumplings in their sleek new shop, Mimi's Dumplings. (Their mother's nickname is Mimi.) The dumplings are of the pot sticker variety, pioneered and popularized 15 years ago at Lower East Side places like Fried Dumpling and Vanessa's, a lure to bargain-seeking diners at five for a dollar. At Mimi's three varieties are available, each with its own distinctive shape: the "reinvented classic" (pork, cabbage, and bok choy), the Mimi Cheng (chicken and zucchini), and the mighty veggie (kale, zucchini, shiitake, and egg).
As in the Lower East Side places, the dumplings are made in full view of the patrons, and furnished with a proprietary dipping sauce that certainly contains soy sauce, sugar, a touch of black vinegar, and maybe a little chile oil. The dumplings are more expensive than their Lower East Side counterparts (six for $8, eight for $10), though they also possess a level of subtlety their forerunners lack. These dumplings are made, where possible, with organic ingredients according to local and sustainable principles. Though sometimes mobbed at peak meal times, the premises are relatively comfortable, featuring a long communal table, in addition to an eating shelf along one wall and in both the windows.
The chicken dumpling — in the standard pot sticker shape — is the best, while the pork seemed a little low on pork, certainly not like the greasy and pork-loaded pot stickers at Vanessa's or Prosperity. A side vegetable is available each day at $5. On a first visit it was dull steamed broccoli; on a second visit, it was a Taiwanese cucumber salad, which featured kirby cukes in a sugary dressing, a good complement to the dumplings. The dumplings seemed a little lackluster on that first visit, but had improved considerably by the second. The chalkboard menu above the counter describes the poultry used in the excellent chicken dumplings as, "pasture raised chicken," making one wonder, who the hell raises chickens in a pasture? 179 Second Ave, 212-533-0169.