Soup dumplings were popularized in Flushing around 1995 by Joe’s Shanghai. They became a sensation when Ruth Reichl wrote a review of Joe’s in 1996, when she called them “the best things in the whole world.” Now soup dumplings —also known as “little juicy buns”— are common in at least three boroughs, turned out with varying skill.
Joe’s still does them well, but the most popular vendor of soup dumplings, at least since 2006, has been Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao. Located on Flushing’s Prince Street, this modest spot is so popular that it has amassed over 100 pages of laudatory Yelp reviews and the wait at meal times can total an hour or more — for dumplings!
Well, those dumpling fanatics may be waiting in the wrong line. A few weeks ago I got an email from a friend whose son had been taking Mandarin lessons. The kid mentioned to his tutor a visit the three of us had made to Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao not long before. She informed him that the esteemed dumpling chef from that place, Zhou Jianhua, left and went to 135-33 40th Rd., which is now the hot spot for soup dumplings. This was exciting news, especially since word had not yet reached the patrons who still stood in long lines at Nan Xiang, and suggested that making the best Shanghai soup dumplings was a skill upon which culinary empires could be built.
I was soon at the 40th Road place with the quizzical English name of Shanghai You Garden, which stood among an unprepossessing line of narrow storefronts — including Taiwanese and Hunan cafes, as well as vegetable stands, hair salons, and massage parlors — on the street that runs just north of the elevated LIRR tracks. Inside, the interior was sumptuously turned out, with booths flanked by plush, sea-green banquettes, wooden lattice room dividers, and hanging lampshades shaped like metal-veined soup dumplings. The waiters sported haircuts out of Top Chef and wore nifty uniforms.
After a plate of cold gluten and black mushrooms, we feasted on two kinds of soup dumplings: pork ($5.75) as well as pork-and-crab ($6.75). Both prices seemed low, especially given the semi-luxurious surroundings. When the dumplings arrived, they were not particularly big by Shanghai dumpling standards, but they bulged extravagantly and looked like they’d be challenging to pick up and eat. Indeed, one broke en route between steamer and mouth. That’s a good sign.
Not only were the noodle-like coverings supremely thin, but the gravy itself was impressive. In fact it was one of the richest we’d tasted, which was the opinion of all five of us as we sat at the table dipping our dumplings in the sauce of black vinegar and shredded ginger and contemplatively slurping. The gravy flaunted a smooth oiliness and an intense porky savor. The crab dumplings displayed plenty of yellow crustacean on top and lots mixed in, so that the dumplings tasted powerfully of the sea.
We finished up our meal with some pan-fried pork buns, which came merrily dotted with black sesame seeds and chopped scallions. We vowed to return and check out the rest of the menu, which consists of all the Shanghai standard main dishes in addition to 14 kinds of dumplings, lots of classic cold dishes (said to show the influence of Russian cuisine on that of Shanghai), and many kinds of noodles. Go before Zhou is lured away by another, even more distinguished, restaurant.