Traveling to Chinatown and Joe’s Shanghai Soup Dumplings vs. Din Tai Fung

Pell Street, Chinatown

A couple of months ago I was feeling really stir-crazy. Don’t get me wrong; New York is a magical city–there are still times when I walk through Central Park or see the Brooklyn Bridge with the Manhattan skyline spread out across the horizon or catch the orange sunset through tall apartment buildings and I am just in awe.  But as I’m cursed with an inability to sit put happily in one place very long, I was starting to feel a little stagnant.  I wanted to stretch my legs on a trail somewhere, soak up the sun by an aquamarine ocean, eat questionable food from a street vendor, hear stories and drink beers with foreigners.

So in my restlessness, I booked a trip to Puerto Rico. Ha! (But more on that in later posts.) Although it felt great to be able to (at the time) actually take off and GTFO of New York, that is a luxury I can’t always afford.  And since I typically can’t just go off galavanting to foreign lands whenever I start to feel the travel itch, I did as any good wanderer knows to do, and I found places that sparked my interest right here on the island of Manhattan.  I found that I could travel to Chinatown.

Fruit vendors in Chinatown–this scene looks like it could be from anywhere in Asia! (Those huge green and yellow fruits in front are jack fruit.)

Propelled by my desire to find decent Taiwanese food in this city, I ventured to Chinatown and discovered that the familiar feelings of being a traveler started to well back up in me as I wandered the streets.  The sights, sounds, colors, smells, language, and signage transport you to a different culture entirely.  Fruit vendors line Canal Street and Grand Street, with tropical offerings like jack fruit (enormous studded green fruits the size of a small animal) and dragon fruit (small spiky fuschia and green fruits the size of your fist). The language heard on the street is foreign, as are the characters on the signs and menus, and everyone–save for the tourists and the mei guo ren who know what’s up–is Chinese. I passed by lots of little scenes that I wanted to snap pictures of: the little girl with her pigtails dancing in the storefront as her grandmother sat wearily behind her, keeping watch of the store; the two men dozing in lawn chairs on the sidewalk; or the fishmonger in his rubber boots and apron placing whole fish into a bin.  What’s especially incredible is that just a few blocks north is Soho, the land of chic designer stores, cobblestone streets, sleek luxury cars, and beautiful, impeccably stylish people. The walk over to Chinatown feels almost as if you’re crossing a border into a new country.

The Chinese have perfected the squat–they even do it here in the U.S.!  You won’t see people squatting in Soho though.

My first order of business in Chinatown was to check out Joe’s Shanghai. I’d heard about their famous soup dumplings, but I was skeptical. “You must go there!” “Best in New York City!” “Suuuuch good soup dumplings!” went the raves.  But a place called Joe’s Shanghai does not exactly scream authenticity to me (it sounds like the owners of Joe’s Crab Shack had a bright idea one day: You know what? We should really do a Chinese restaurant!).  I was intrigued to see if these xiao long bao (soup dumplings in Mandarin) could really hold a flame to my personal favorites from now world-famous restaurant Din Tai Fung in Taipei. If you don’t know (now you know), soup dumplings are one of the world’s tastiest and coolest foods. They look a little like pork buns, but are made with thinner dough. When they’re steamed, soup fills the dumpling, making a delicious little pouch of savory, brothy goodness.

As anyone who’s sat through Midnight in Paris knows, you usually come away happier without high expectations.  (Ooh, Woody Allen dig!)  I went in the middle of the afternoon when there was no wait whatsoever, because I’d heard you typically have to wait at least 45 minutes if you go during peak meal times.  Despite an entire 2/3 of the restaurant being empty, I was shown my seat at a table where there were already three other people sitting at it, and I was apparently meant to just share this table space with them.  I get it. You’re busy; you get a lot of customers. But really?! When it’s clearly half empty, I still have to wedge myself at a table with three other people? I guess this is Chinatown.

Soup dumplings! (with my tablemates in the background)

Don’t come to this place if you’re looking for a classy meal. The air in the place feels a little greasy; the place looks a little dumpy. They certainly make no pretenses about wanting you to have a good dining experience–I had to ask for a menu, and then again had to call over a waiter to order after several minutes of waiting.  But, it’s Chinatown, and I didn’t come here for five-star service, I came here for drool-inducing soup dumplings.  I can’t speak for their other menu offerings (although from the reviews I have heard their Chinese food is not the best), but their soup dumplings were what I was after.  When they arrived in their bamboo steamer, beautiful and perfect with their little swirls of dough, I had already forgotten that I was basically rubbing elbows with the stranger sitting next to me. Drool was successfully induced.

Xiao long bao! So delish, and so cute! (My white balance was off when I took these pictures… they came out a little too yellow. Sorry if that doesn’t look as appetizing as it should.)

Unfortunately, as soon as I bit into my first one, I knew right away that my hunch was correct: These weren’t going to be as good as the ones in Taiwan. The dough was just a little too chewy, a little too tough. I had to actively pull the dough away from my teeth in order to bite it, rather than the soft morsel of dumpling just giving way.  My lasting impression of the dumplings at Din Tai Fung is that they were impossibly delicate. You had to eat them with great care, or you’d puncture them with your chopsticks, letting the soup run out in the steamer or on route to your spoon, wasting the best part. You leave feeling a great respect for the master crafters of these little dumpling delicacies.

Herein lies one main difference between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese style food: Taiwanese usually use much thinner wrappers (dough) on everything that has dough–dumplings, wontons, soup dumplings, scallion pancakes, sesame pancakes, meat and vegetable filled buns, etc. Thinner dough means the filling and other delicious stuff gets to shine in each bite, which means, in my opinion, better-tasting food, not to mention more expertly-crafted food.  I also thought the soup in the dumplings was a little too thick and heavy, tasting more like what I can only describe as “meat juice” (that really makes you want to try them for yourself, doesn’t it?).  From what I remember of the Din Tai Fung dumplings, the broth was lighter and didn’t seem to thicken as quickly.

But, were the soup dumplings delicious? Definitely. Joe’s Shanghai ended up being short of amazing, but still definitely worth the trip to curb my soup dumpling craving, and to see what the hype was about. Din Tai Fung does set the bar very high, and being that I can’t regularly fly to Taipei when I want good soup dumplings, I will gladly go back to Joe’s and throw down a very reasonable $4.95 (for a steamer of 8 dumplings!) to get my fix every now and then.  In fact, writing this has made me want to go back… like… right now.  But now I put it to you: Are there better soup dumplings to be had in New York City? Tell me if you have any recommendations! Anyone know of good places in Flushing? And what was your opinion of Joe’s soup dumplings? Or if you’ve ever been to Din Tai Fung, what was your opinion of theirs?

—————–

Quick end note: If you’ve never eaten soup dumplings, you won’t know that they’re tricky little suckers to eat. The soup inside the dumplings comes out scalding hot, and if you bite straight into the dumpling as you would normally, the broth bursts out in a tongue-burning, shirt-ruining mess. Here’s a short tutorial on how to eat them like a pro: 1) Using the tongs provided, gently put the soup dumpling on your spoon.  2) Bite a hole in the dough wrapping first, not biting all the way through to the filling in the middle. 3) As steam pours out of the dumpling through the hole you’ve just bitten, carefully drink some of the soup, blowing on it, as it will be very hot. 4) Add provided soy/vinegar/ginger to the dumpling if desired. 5) Enjoy rest of dumpling all together once the soup has become sufficiently less scalding!

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