What do you think was the tipping point for xiao long bao to become a global phenomenon? It’s not like they’re a new invention like, say, foie gras popcorn incubated in liquid nitrogen and smashed into pork belly ice-cream. It’s not like Shanghai cuisine hasn’t been in New York since the 1940s. And it’s not like Joe’s Shanghai has been anywhere than narrow Peel Street in New York’s Chinatown since 1996. Well, actually it has, having started in Flushing in 1995 and also expanded to a third location in Midtown on 56th Street. Whatever. It’s not new.
I first came across the XLB phenomenon on the opposite side of the planet back in Australia, when I visited HuTong in Melbourne earlier this year. After a single post-meal Google search, I was amazed many people around the world were going crazy for Shanghai’s famed soup dumplings. Is this a sign of how quick restaurateurs can copy successes from other cities, or are XLB one of the first foods to capitalise on social media?
No matter, I was excited to get a follow-up to my HuTong experience, and wanted to check out Joe’s after hearing so many honourable mentions among foodie friends. So Sarah and I bicycled cross-town and then down hectic Bowery Street – one of those roadways that’s the opposite of those lush, calm bikeways that Mayor Bloomburg has financed all over the city (thanks, Mayor!) – and shlepped the bikes two blocks back to Peel Street after we missed it on the first pass.
We weren’t exactly sure where the restaurant was, but after looking down the ramshackle alley, the crowds pointed us in the right direction. It was 7.30pm on a Thursday and there were dozens of people standing idly out front, waiting their turn. The process wasn’t clear at first, but eventually I was directed inside, where the hostess took my name and gave me a ticket stub: lucky number 67.
The wait was “at least” 30 minutes, so we strolled the Chinatown streets, found me a crazy-cheap haircut for $7 (the economical benefits of now buzzing my hair short), and window-shopped for designer chopsticks and cheap sunglasses.
We were seated some 45 minutes later, and crammed into a tiny two-seater near the door, but we weren’t too fussed – we’re not looking for décor or convenience in Chinatown; just good, often-cheap food. And we bee-lined for the XLB, but, erm, we couldn’t find them on the menu. Our waiter grumbled something about numbers nine and ten and then dashed off (Chinese waiters always seem to be time-poor), but we looked and only saw listings for pork buns and pork-and-crab buns. We were confused. We wanted soup dumplings, not dim-sum buns. So we pulled over a hostess with better English, and she explained that the “buns” in question were indeed the soup dumplings we wanted. No worries: we ordered one plate of each, and also chose a special – a fish fillet in chilli sauce – just to get another taste of Shanghai cuisine.
I’d love to say that the xiao long bao blew me away, that they made me go “coo coo cajoo” and flap my wings with excitement and lick my lips like Sharon Stone did when I watched Basic Instinct on Hulu the other night (or was that me?). What I did go was, mmm, not bad. The dumplings were good, but I found the soup to be a bit more gelatinous than I’d like, and while I found the pork variety tasty, I wasn’t a fan of the too-fishy crab-and-pork version. I’m guessing the crab was dried (and if it wasn’t, it was just lousy crab meat), which may be the authentic way to go, but it didn’t float my boat. And maybe I was spoiled, but the XLB that I experienced at HuTong were smaller, had thinner skins and had a more delicate broth.
I’d go back for the pork XLB at Joe’s, but not for the crab dumplings, and I’d definitely would be wary of ordering other items on the menu. One dish does not a menu make, but the fish special we ordered came rolled and smothered in a gluggy sauce that was more akin to sweet chilli sauce, but without the chilli. It was bland and overly rich.
So my hunt for a repeat of my XLB love affair may have to wait until I travel to Flushing, Queens, to try the city’s other famed soup dumpling spot, Nan Xiang. Well, it’s either that or wait until my food tour to China in October, when I’ll be able to taste the real deal in its native city.
Joe’s Shanghai, 9 Pell St (btw Bowery and Mott sts)., Chinatown, New York, NY, +1 (212) 233-8888, www.joeshanghairestaurants.com