I just wrapped up a month-long stay in Shanghai, no small part of which was devoted to checking out the state of xiao long bao and other small eats. I hit a total of 12 different xiao long bao venues; I'll preview the bottom 11 in a subsequent post, but Number 1 deserves its own paean.
I had my xiao long bao epiphany in early April, 1992, at Shanghai's Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian, the place that put xiao long bao on the map and established what was indisputably the gold standard for the noble dumpling. The timing of my visit was fortuitous, because less than two weeks later the Nanxiang was shut down for extensive remodeling and reconfiguration as a more tourist-oriented venue, a metamorphosis that seemed to trigger an inexorable decline in the quality of the xiao long bao served there.
Since my first xiao long bao experiences, I've been hunting down the best XLB I could find wherever I happen to be, and for the last couple of years have been flying the flag for Jia Jia Tang Bao as the best Shanghai had to offer. Visits to the two current Jia Jia locations earlier on this trip did nothing to dissuade me from that opinion, but a subsequent visit to De Long Guan did.
In truth, I had begun to doubt my memory of what I had been so excited about 16 years ago. Was I chasing a phantom, a platonic ideal that didn't exist? Not in the least, it turned out: what the woman at De Long Guan set before me was nothing less than a Proustian straight shot back to 1992 in the form of six precious dumplings. The very size seemed right for once, a millimeter of two smaller in diameter than prevails today. The wrapper was as thin as anybody else's, and the solid filling perfectly chewy, not grainy. But it was the intensity of the “soup” that brought back the flood of memories. It was an intensity that some might fault as too salty, but in reality it was the right partner leading in the irascibly Shanghainese dance of salty and sweet that serves so well to corral and deepen the flavor of a complex medium. I ordered a second steamer to make sure my taste buds weren't playing tricks on me, and the magic remained. I'll be visiting De Long Guan again before I leave town, and praying it will be there when I come back in a year's time. It's a hole-in-the-wall that certainly looks like its been there forever.
De Long Guan (德笼馆)
473 Jiangxi Zhong Lu nr. Nansuzhou Lu