The Foodamentals team visited the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei last year and since then, we keep dreaming of those delicious little soup dumplings (小籠包), also known as Shanghai steamed dumplings. In fact, we can’t stop thinking about those savory, juicy morsels of soup and pork perfection. Even though the San Francisco Bay Area(our hometown) has one of the largest concentration of authentic Chinese restaurants, finding a soup dumpling place that even remotely resembles Din Tai Fung has been futile. So, we are setting out to change that. We put aside an entire Saturday afternoon(11 hours worth) a pair of baggy sweatpants and our good judgement, just so we can find and crown the best soup dumpling restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Our criteria for review is simple. At each location, we will only order the classic Shanghai steamed dumplings (上海小籠包) filled with pork. Eat place will be graded by the quality of the dumpling skin, how savory the pork filling is and whether there is enough broth inside of the dumpling to end the drought in Northern California.
6. Shanghai Dumpling King
3319 Balboa Street
San Francisco, CA
Price $5.95 for 10 dumplings (Cash Only)
Shanghai Dumpling King is a classic San Francisco institution. Situated on Balboa Street, slightly north of Golden Gate Park in the Outer Richmond district, the restaurant possesses the highest Yelp review score of all the restaurants we visited. Even though it was a rainy and gloomy day, there was a long line to get a taste of their signature soup dumplings. The line moved rather quickly and within 30 minutes, we were seated. The restaurant definitely has a hole in the wall feel and seating is rather limited with about 40 available seats. Looking around, it seems as though the seated crowd was a mix of both tourists and locals. A “cash only” sign (printed on computer paper no less), mandarin speaking chefs and grimy stools only added to the authenticity of this place. We knew we were in good hands.
The presentation of the dumplings was adequate. The dumpling skin was fairly rough and was definitely thicker than any of the other variations we ate that day. However, the filling had a nice balanced flavor to them and a generous helping of pork to round out the experience. Usually, the soup dumpling filling is a mix of pork, garnish and congealed soup base. Therefore, when the soup dumplings are steamed, the inside of the dumpling swells with the soup while adding flavor to the pork. When we bit into the dumplings, we expected broth. Instead, the inside of the dumpling was dry and there were some oil that was a byproduct of the meat. Overall, the dumplings tasted extremely oily and we had to chase every bite with tea. But at the end of the day, if you are looking for a quick fix, you really can’t argue with the price.
5. Xiao Long Bao Kitchen
331 Grand Avenue
South San Francisco
Price $7.95 for 8 dumplings
Xiao Long Bao Kitchen is actually the sister store of the famous Shanghai Dumpling Shop located in Millbrae. Although the name is different, the menu, prices and owners are exactly the same. The only difference is that this location is a lot more spacious and accessible due to its convenient location in downtown South San Francisco (which I didn’t even know existed before this challenge). Compared to its sister restaurant, the Xiao Long Bao Kitchen is a lot more accessible as there is ample parking and absolutely no wait when we arrived at around 2pm.
At a glance, the dumplings are obviously crafted with a lot of care, with special attention paid to the skin. The skin of the dumpling was thick enough to hold the broth, but not thick enough to hinder the taste of the filling. Of all the restaurants, Xiao Long Bao Kitchen is the most generous when it comes to the amount of filling and broth you get on a per dumpling basis. In fact, when we took our first bite into the dumpling, the broth gushed out like a geyser, nearly spraying the people sitting across from us and staining our clothes. Now that’s what you call an “explosion in your mouth”.
The dumplings were tasty, but they do leave a bit of a weird aftertaste. The taste actually reminded us of Chinese meatballs that you can get at dim sum restaurants. Additionally, If you still have room in your stomach, there is the option of purchasing a traditional “giant soup dumpling” that is about 4x the size of the regular size ones. The waitress will give you a straw to drink the broth and we recommend you use a knife and a fork to eat the bad boy!
4. House of Dumplings
109 Appian Way
Union City, CA
Price $4.95 for 6 dumplings
House of Dumplings is tucked away in a nondescript corner plaza in the middle of Union City. Because there aren’t many shops around, you can easily miss the storefront if you are not paying careful attention. What was especially unique about this restaurant was how nice and attentive the wait staff was. I guess when we are use to going to Chinese restaurants and being treated like dirt, House of Dumplings is like a breath of fresh air. The restaurant is entirely family-run with seating capacity at around 20 people. The menu is not overly big, but it does include a robust selection of Shanghai regional favorites. It’s definitely one of those restaurants were you feel like you’ve stumbled upon a hidden oasis and you quiver in anticipation because you know your meal is already going to be awesome. Lastly, For all the readers who can’t speak Chinese, never fear, the wait staff here can speak adequate English.
House of Dumplings proudly proclaims that each of their dumplings is handmade and therefore, the creases are folded by hand. The House of Dumpling’s variation includes a thicker skin, which didn’t make the dumplings any chewier and more importantly did not detract from the taste or experience at all. Even when we prodded and poked at the skin with our chopsticks, the skin held firm and didn’t spill any broth of pork onto the spoon. Only when we bit into the dumplings did the soupy goodness spill out. The taste of the skin can be best described as similar to a mantou, which is a Chinese steamed bun that is commonly eaten during breakfast. The broth was extremely unique as House of Dumplings opted for a leaner, clear broth that was seasoned with Chinese white pepper. Although there are many good points about their dumplings, the only downside to House of Dumplings is that they skimp on the amount of meat and broth. However, House of Dumplings still gets a nod of approval for their unique broth and visible care that gets put into crafting an exquisite dumpling.
3. Kingdom of Dumplings
1713 Taraval Street
San Francisco, CA
Price $4.95 for 6 dumplings (Cash only)
For good reason, Kingdom of Dumplings is one of the most popular dumpling restaurants in San Francisco. The quintessential “hole in the way” with no decor or ambiance to speak of, Kingdom of Dumplings is known for its food and only its food. The place is always packed and wait times can usually take upwards of an hour. Part of that reason is because not only is the restaurant extremely well-reviewed on Yelp, but also because the restaurant is tiny and only seats about 20 people. Hence, it is highly recommended that you know what you want before you sit down. Because of the long constant throng of eaters, the restaurant wants to make sure they get everyone in and out as quickly as possible. You better know what you want to order before you sit down. Unfortunately, that also means you won’t be able to add anything else once you placed your initial orders in.
As a true “hole in the wall,” Kingdom of Dumpling’s lack of ambiance only adds to the perception that we have stumbled upon a true hidden gem. The soup dumplings were excellent and came out piping hot from the kitchen. Not surprisingly, the dumplings were soft and chewy with plenty of room for the delicious broth that accompanied the pork. From the picture, you can see the generous amount of broth that was exposed after biting into the dumpling. Although the meat tastes more like chicken than pork, the dumplings were still delicious and really stood out amongst all the dumplings we sampled. For an added kick, go crazy with their signature orange spicy hot sauce. Truthfully, we were initially skeptical of the restaurant, not only because it was so hyped up, but we realized that over 90% of the customers were non-Asians. But, after eating here, we realize how much we would have missed out if we never gave this place a chance.
2. Shanghai Restaurant
10877 N Wolfe Rd
Price $5.95 for 6 dumplings
Shanghai Restaurant is one of those places where, just by looking at it, you knew it was legitimate for three reasons. First, the restaurant is located inside of the ridiculously crowded (and predominantly Chinese) 99 Ranch Plaza in Cupertino Village. Second, the wait staff all speak with a Shanghai accent with a few even busting out the Shanghainese dialect. Third, every customer in the restaurant had black hair. It is pretty obvious the proprietors of this fine institution only know of one thing – to bring you the best Shanghainese food you can shove in your mouth.
Boy were we right. If we could describe the soup dumplings in one word it would be – masterful. The dumpling skin was so soft yet firm enough to hold in the broth. You could take a chopstick, poke at it, and the skin would not rip apart. Unlike the other restaurants, the broth was brown in color because of its soy sauce composition. I fully expected the broth to overpower the rest of the dumpling. But because the broth was lighter(not overly salty) than expected, it succeeded in highlighting the flavor of the pork.
Pro tip: It is one of those restaurants that if you speak to your waitress in Chinese, they will treat you better. If that is not authentic, I don’t know what is.
While Shanghai Restaurant was fantastic, it still didn’t produce the best soup dumplings in the San Francisco Bay Area. That honor actually belongs to…
1. Dumpling Kitchen
1935 Taraval Street
San Francisco, CA
Price $7 for 10 dumplings
Just two blocks down from Kingdom of Dumplings is Dumpling Kitchen (say that three times fast). Although Dumpling Kitchen is significantly less famous than many of these other restaurants on this list, it holds its own as a palace of Chinese authenticity. Short, middle age women will elbow you in the back and shout in your ears as they push their way to the front counter. The numerous misspellings on the menu (eg. wontons in vegetabble soup) only lends to the credibility as do the all-Chinese wait staff and predominantly Chinese patrons. Net-net, you better bring your A-game here or go home. The restaurant resembles a large dim sum or seafood restaurant with ample seating for more than 80 people. Though the restaurant is run be Cantonese people, the Shanghai dishes are legitimate. As an added bonus, they take credit cards (but alas, no American Express).
Hands down, the dumplings here are a religious experience. As Will Ferrell would say, “once it touches your lips, its so good.” In our opinion, Din Tai Fung is the flag bearer for soup dumpling perfect. We would venture as far out to say that these dumplings are the closest thing to Din Tai Fung and in fact, they might even be better than Din Tai Fung!(collective gasp) The dumplings are so delicately made and almost translucent that just by looking at it, you have to have it. By far, the skin is the thinnest of all the dumplings we ate. Yet, the skin is also impeccably strong enough to house the explosive amount of clear pork broth in every dumpling. The dumplings are strong enough to be picked up by chopsticks, demonstrating the consistency of the dough used and the hand skill of the chefs. The pork filling is moist that it allows the dumpling to strike the perfect balance between salty and savory. The dumplings are absolutely amazing. If you haven’t had it yet, you must make a trek out there this instant.
Pro Tip: Dumpling Kitchen feels like a hidden oasis, untouched by Yelpers thus far. We highly recommend coming here before its aura becomes completely decimated by its own success.