Spurned on by the new David Chang Netflix series “Ugly Delicious”, I went on a quest to find the best sheng jian bao (aka SJB). Everyone knows XLB (xiao long bao), the soup-filled steamed pork dumplings that Din Tai Fung made famous worldwide, but these fried versions (often using a leaven yeasted dough) are an underappreciated creature. And frying anything makes it better, right?
With some input from my passionate Instagram followers, I made a list of four places to try:
- Shanghai Dimsum House Ltd. (Crystal Mall, Burnaby)
- Shanghai Fortune Cuisine (Crystal Mall, Burnaby)
- Top Shanghai Cuisine Restaurant (Richmond)
- R&H Chinese Food (Lansdowne Centre, Richmond)
I could easily add many more places to this list (e.g. Wang’s Shanghai in Vancouver) but I’m just one guy with a day job (not this) so if I forgot your favourite place, just leave a comment and I’ll consider it for next time(?)!
Shanghai Dimsum House Ltd. (Crystal Mall, Burnaby)
You know what they say about going to the place with the longest lineups? I’d have to say that it generally applies to Asian food courts, yes.
This stall used to be called “Xu’s Wonton House Inc.” (and Wang’s before that?) and are known for their XLB, which I’ve written about here in a post comparing them with the relocated Wang’s. I did indeed have XLB during this visit but I’ll only talk about the SJB, often listed as some variation of the name “Pan-Fried Pork Soup Dumplings”. At this place, it’s #7 on the menu.
SJBs usually have the same filling as XLB, so this warning applies here too.
This stall is very busy and they use the number system:
They’ll scream out your number in Mandarin and somewhat intelligible English. The cacophony is part of the entire dining experience here.
This mop bucket is also a critical part of the dining experience here. (There’s a joke about yellow mop buckets if you watch the “Stuffed” episode of Ugly Delicious.)
A common sight at many places that specialize in XLB.
Shanghai Style Pan Fried Pork Buns ($6.05 for 5). Green onions and sesame seeds are a common topping for SJB.
Really crunchy, crusty frying job on the bottom of these.
LOTS of soup inside these ones! The soup in the XLB and SJB are what I’d describe as “salt-forward” in that the first note you taste is salt, but it’s not egregiously so. Everything else about the dumpling is good, and these really are a bigger, heftier, fried version of their XLB. These are definitely HOT and stay hot longer than XLB would, so be careful!
Important note: the SJB here use a similar dough to their XLB, which results in a thick, chewy skin that creates a very crusty crunch and holds in a lot of soup. If you like the flavour profile of their XLB, you’ll like these. Good meat-to-dough ratio.
But what about SJB that use the fluffier steamed bao dough instead? They have them at neighbouring stall Shanghai Fortune!
Shanghai Fortune Cuisine (Crystal Mall, Burnaby)
Shanghai Fortune has been open for about a year as of this writing. They also have lineups — in fact, the lineup started even before they opened at 11:00am!
Marginally cheaper than Shanghai Dimsum House down the hall.
Also has a posted warning about hot soup.
Pan Fried Pork Buns ($5.99 for 5) with a side of Chinkiang black vinegar.
Half the places I visited gave vinegar as a side dip, half didn’t (or neglected to). I don’t think it’s critical. If the bun is good, it doesn’t even need this stuff. If you really want it, you could always ask for it, and it’s the same stuff they serve with XLB.
Excellent frying job here too. Not burnt but has a healthy caramelization and crust on it.
This is a proper yeasted risen dough with this SJB. They don’t seem to give a soup spoon with their SJBs, so you have to drink the soup straight from the bun. The amount of soup here ranged from negligible to “a somewhat generous sip”. So in comparison to Shanghai Dimsum House, this place loses on the soup factor, if that is a factor for you. Of the soup I could taste, it was similarly salty-ish as Shanghai Dimsum, but had a bit more depth to back it up.
However, the meat was noticeably firmer and more gristly than any of the SJB I tasted in this showdown. The dough has a bit of a dry, crumbly quality to it which I wasn’t a fan of. Maybe a slight lack of gluten development? You can see how the bun cracked in half in the photo above. Good with caveats, but not great. (This place is still worthy for an XLB showdown though!)
Top Shanghai Cuisine Restaurant (Richmond)
I’ve only been here once with family, but I’m back at many peoples’ insistence on Instagram. So glad I came.
I never had to suffer through Chinese school, therefore I’m basically illiterate in this situation.
#352 is the one you want.
This isn’t marble dishware.
Pan-Fried Dumpling Filled with Pork ($8.99 for 6). I can already tell these are the proper, prototypical fluffy bao-type SJB that are cooked together and must be pulled apart like a tray of buns.
That wonderful frying on the bottom reminds me of fried mantou or fried silver thread rolls you can get at any good Shanghai place, often served with condensed milk.
The copious soup here nails it! There’s a sweetness here that just balances out the flavour wonderfully. It’s a sweetness that was missing in the Crystal Mall places I talked about above. There’s also an oniony hit that I liked.
One minor niggle: I wish there was a bit more meat. But I think it’s a tradeoff with the amount of soup because the gelatin in the meat mixture dissolves and the meat shrinks as it cooks, so you could probably either have lots of meat but no soup, or lots of soup and smaller amount of meat, but you can’t have both… (This is the same with XLB — the best XLB have plenty of soup but look like a saggy ball sack because the meat shrinks as it cooks and releases the soup.)
The bao part is soft and fluffy, much better than the crumbly bao at Shanghai Fortune. The overall flavour just nails it. The SJB here aren’t served with black vinegar. It just doesn’t need it! These were the priciest SJB but completely worth it. Colossal.
Bonus point: Top Shanghai have the STRONGEST and thickest takeout bags I’ve ever seen. You won’t be able to put your foot through these.
R&H Chinese Food (Lansdowne Centre, Richmond)
Another highly recommended place (and featured by Mike Chen/Strictly Dumpling) is R&H Chinese Food inside Lansdowne Centre.
The “Grilled Juice Pork Buns” is what you want. They take about 12 minutes to make.
Grilled Juicy Pork Buns ($7.39 for 4). Served fried-side-up, these were the biggest, fluffiest SJBs I had but the least fried, which was a bit of a letdown.
Served with black vinegar.
Visually this SJB is skewing more towards regular steamed bao territory.
Negligible soup. The cross-section looks pretty much identical to any steam pork bao/siopao that you can find in Chinese/Filipino bakeries, just with a little frying on the bottom. The meat was generous and filled the whole cavity, but was a touch salty but does balance out with the amount of bun.
If I never had any of the other renditions of SJB, I’d probably be happy with this R&H version, thinking “wow it’s like a steamed bao but with a fried bottom, cool!” but after eating a few different kinds, I definitely have my favourites and recognize that SJB is its own kind of thing separate from bao and XLB.
But I’m not writing this place off! They have lots on their menu, and I did try another Mike Chen favourite, the Chinese Spicy Beef Burger, which I liked a lot:
My completely personal ranking
None of these places do a bad job. Everyone’s got their own criteria, and you’ve seen mine. All of these places cook-to-order, so you’re guaranteed hot, fresh, and delicious food.
1) Top Shanghai Cuisine Restaurant – My favourite wins on overall flavour and execution. The most expensive and the only sit-down restaurant I tried. That first sip of rich, balanced broth did it for me.
2) Shanghai Dimsum House Ltd. – Even though this place uses dumpling wrapper instead of fluffy bao dough, I’m growing to appreciate this kind of SJB. The crusty bottoms and copious hot fiya soup will have me coming back for more.
3) Shanghai Fortune Cuisine – Not a fan of the crumbly bun. Maybe I’ll grow to like it more.
4) R&H Chinese Food – Tastes good but skews too close to regular steamed bao for me, and doesn’t quite express that SJB-ness that I’m looking for.
Bonus size comparison: R&H vs Top Shanghai
R&H Chinese Food on the left, Top Shanghai on the right.
Reheating takeout SJB is definitely possible, however the soup does get absorbed into the bun.
I gently nuked the buns to warm them through then finish them on a non-stick pan on medium/low heat to get it somewhat crispy. Still delicious as leftovers!