We love us some good xiao long bao, and any debate about “the best soup dumplings in New York” usually brings us, in a pork-stock twist on Godwin’s Law, to M Shanghai in Williamsburg. We just don’t understand the fuss about the twin branches of Joe’s Shanghai, which are fine, but really offer nothing more than a timewarp Chinatown xiao long bao. M Shanghai is essentially a simple, handsome, Brooklyn bar, with a few subtle hints of Chinoiserie in its colour scheme and graphics, serving a fantastic margarita and the best soup dumplings in the city. Their “juicy pork buns” are a major event: muscular and chunky, with skins are strong enough to stop any explosion of soup, but not overly thick. You bite the top open, swirl in some of soy, black vinegar and ginger dressing the server has mixed for you, and drink that and the stock out before you bite into the pork. It’s a wonder.
Don’t tug on Superman’s cape, just order the basic Kung Fu ones, in multiple
All that said, there’s not that much else on the menu at M Shanghai to recommend. It’s all about the bun. At The Bao, an East Village arriviste, things are different. First up, this is one of the few dining rooms on St Mark’s Place that won’t put your off your food before you even sit down. The simple bare brick space, with bright pink pop art and a communal table at the rear, is high on function and low on theme. The menu is far more extensive than the name of the restaurant suggests (the sautéed string beans are worth a visit in themselves), but the focus on page is squarely on soup dumplings. There is the basic Kung Fu xia long bao, and a few variants: a crab one, a wasabi one and a super spicy one. Avoid the last option: this is a stunt dish that will eviscerate your tastebuds while you eat and return for a violent haunting the next morning. The wasabi version gives a pleasant enough blast of green heat, and the crab one is fine, but really – don’t tug on Superman’s cape, just order the basic Kung Fu ones, in multiple. They are smaller and more delicate than the ones at M Shanghai, so you’ll get through more. The size has its downside: you can’t really introduce that much of the vinegar sauce into the mix inside. But these are still the freshest tasting and best dumplings downtown.
It’s an explosion of rich, smooth sweetness
Where The Bao really comes into its own is with its sweet basket: the alarming sounding chocolate xiao long bao is a thing of great joy. Consider them mini crepe bites: small liquid bombs of chocolate and banana. It’s an explosion of rich, smooth sweetness. There are four to a serving, and you’ll eat as many as you order. As low-fi East Village food classics go, this is immediately up there with the steamed hirata at Fat Buddha, the gnocchi at Frank and Northern Spy’s pulled pork and parsnip glaze buns. C
The Bao, 13 St. Mark’s Place, East Village, New York, NY 10003