TL;DR: scroll to the bottom
One of the first things I realized when I moved to New York was the abundance of soup dumpling specialists in the city. This was a promising sight; it had been two years since I had been back home to Shanghai, and I really missed a taste of home.
It quickly became my gluttonous and completionist goal to find out which shop would beat out the competition and win the useless yet cherished title of Alan’s favorite soup dumplings in NYC. After visiting about 20 or so places, I think it’s time to call it on my search. To be honest, I remember thinking that I had found the best place about 4 spots in, but I decided to continue for the sake of science, and a sense of insatiable adventure.
Nonetheless, I’ll leave this endeavor a bit disappointed — there is no perfect place in NYC in my books, but a couple do come close in different aspects. I rated each place along 2 dimensions, both out of 5 points: the technique of the soup dumpling, and the authenticity of flavor.
Technique is an objective measure. As food writer Christopher St Cavish put it, a good soup dumpling needs to defy the the principles of engineering. It needs to have a thin skin, plentiful soup, and abundant filling.
Flavor on the other hand is subjective, which I base off of the familiar flavors of my childhood. One big factor I considered was sweetness, which I found most places to avoid; perhaps they’ve adapted to the palates of New Yorkers, or are created by chefs who aren’t Shanghainese (in my experience, soup dumplings in Canton or Taiwan typically are not sweet). But it’s also more than just being sweet — a tasty soup dumpling also needs to be porky, fatty, and full of umami too.
During my search, I only went for the plain pork dumplings. It’s an ubiquitous measuring stick, and the purest in flavors to assess. While crab flavored dumplings are quite popular, I realized quickly into my foray that the crab flavored dumplings in NYC did not taste like the same back home. It turns out that Chinese Hairy Mitten Crabs, used in China to create the fragrant crab roe pork dumplings, is a highly invasive species that is illegal in the United States (though you can still find them if you’re looking in the right places, but I’ll save that for another day).
I’ve roughly ranked all the places I visited in my preference from worst to best. I think the cut-off for a place I’d go back to is somewhere around Memories of Shanghai; anything before that I cannot recommend, and anything after that is worth a shot.
Lastly, here’s a Google Maps list of all the places I went to. I plan on continually updating this list as I go to more places.
Technique: 2; Flavor: 3
If there is one place you take away from this article to not go, let it be Joe’s Shanghai. I was the only Asian customer at a full restaurant when I dined here — irrelevant, but just thought that was notable.
The soup dumplings are the definition of inconsistency. The skin ranges from see-through thin to dictionary-thick, sometimes even in the same dumpling. But most of the time the skin is thick, and it’s a rubbery thickness that you have a hard time putting down. The meat is pitifully small given how thick the skin is, while the soup varies from a sip to a gulp depending on your luck.
The soup flavor isn’t bad though. It’s starchy and fatty but not distinct in flavor. The filling was too small to be notable.
Technique: 2.5; Flavor: 2.5
The Chinese name of Baodega is completely different from its English one; it shares the same name as a pan fried dumpling chain popular in Shanghai — Yang’s Fried Dumplings. Perhaps that was the first sign that the soup dumplings here wouldn’t be reliable.
The soup dumpling has a thick skin that’s quite noticeable, and a disappointing amount of soup. The lack of soup is traded off for the filling, which is alright in size.
However, the flavor of the soup is off. It’s very salty but also quite sweet. It uses too much dark soy that it even affects the mouthfeel, and makes you feel quite parched. Thank goodness there isn’t a lot of soup.
How are the pan fried dumplings? Recommendable. It is barely leavened and here they actually nail the soup correctly to be porky and not dominated by soy. The jalapeño soy dipping sauce is a fun twist.
3 Times Dim Sum
Technique: 2; Flavor: 4
The skin is amateurishly thick, like something you’d get from the frozen soup dumplings section at a grocery store. There’s a non-trivial amount of soup and filling, but the thickness of the skin dwarves this fact. The soup dumplings are pretty big though.
The flavor is solid. The broth is quite clear and light, yet still porky. It has a faint sweetness. The filling is more firm and has some chewy bits embedded in, but could be larger.
Technique: 2.5; Flavor: 3.5
The skin is thick and a little sticky that it plays an unwelcome yet distinct role in each bite. The filling is fairly large and quite immensely porky, but the quantity of soup isn’t remarkable.
The flavor leans slightly sweet with influences of cooking wine. The crab one tastes strangely sour though.
Technique: 2.5; Flavor: 4
Yaso is a more industrialized operation — a westernized fast dining place where I immediately didn’t expect greatness when I walked in. The walls have puns like “I have fillings for you”, and you order on a tablet without any human interaction.
Turns out they beat my expectation. The soup flavor is fatty and sweet, and wholly consisting of pork. The filling is so soft it disappears behind the thick and discernibly floury skin. The amount of soup and filling leans on the lesser end, but is adequate.
My biggest gripe is that the soup dumplings are not fresh. They come out lukewarm in a one time use plastic bowl — telltale signs it was not steamed to order. They taste like they’ve been frozen and were made elsewhere. For that quality, they’re actually surprisingly good. But otherwise, I cannot in good conscience recommend them.
Technique: 3; Flavor: 3
The definition of mid. The skin is quite glutinous that it yields a slightly uncomfortably sticky texture, yet it cannot be considered thin. There is an adequate amount of soup, and not a large filling.
However, the dumpling doesn’t feel fresh, like it was previously frozen; I think that leads to over-steaming. The soup is very salty and quite savory, but it also has a fatty flavor in both the soup and filling. I wouldn’t come back.
Technique: 4; Flavor: 2.5
Shanghai 21 does larger dumplings that are fairly well constructed. The soup dumpling is well rounded — the skin is fairly thin, the filling is alright, and there’s a good amount of soup.
However, the soup tastes off. It has a light offputting sourness to it, as if the stock had gone bad. It tastes just a tingle peppery, and is more flavored like vegetable stock instead of pork. The filling is fairly grainy with hints of fat.
Shanghai You Garden
Technique: 3; Flavor: 3.5
You garden’s dumplings are sturdy. They hold their shape when held up and I don’t feel scared of breaking them. The skin is not thin, and the pleating at the top is noticeable when you eat it. But the variance of the thinness is also notable — they range from subpar to par. The soup quantity is adequate though, and so is the size of the filling. But in any bite, you realize that there is definitely more flour than meat.
The soup is decent, strong in umami, somewhat porky from the lard and with a strong hint of ginger. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if it’s fueled by MSG. The filling holds its shape, and it’s a little inexplicably peppery.
Overall the restaurant is disappointing for Shanghainese food. The scallion oil noodles are not good, and the Indian aster isn’t fresh.
Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao
Technique: 3.5; Flavor: 3
Nan Xiang is known for their 6-colored soup dumplings of 6 different flavors, which I would recommend for the novelty factor alone. But their technique is otherwise quite average, and their normal soup dumplings are rather unremarkably flavored.
The soup dumplings are quite large. As a result, everything is enlarged: bigger filling, a big gulp of soup, and a fairly thick skin. The soup resembles stock and has an unfortunate starchy consistency, overall not sweet. The structural integrity is fairly high though.
Technique: 4; Flavor: 3
Redfarm definitely had the most expensive soup dumplings out of all the places I went to — 19 for 4 pork and crab soup dumplings (there was no pork only).
Does it live up to its price? No. The skin was thin, but it had a noticeable pleating especially since they had a smaller filling that breaks apart easily. Each dumpling packs an adequate amount of soup, but by no means a respectable amount compared to top tier and much cheaper places in the city.
The soup is lighter in flavor and tastes a little like shrimp, with the crab nowhere to be found. The goji berry at the top was a fun touch.
Technique: 3.5; Flavor: 3.5
Pinch’s dumplings don’t have too much soup. The skin is commendably thin but with a notable pleating at the top. The pork filling is passable in size to make up for the lack of soup. Overall the technique is decent.
The soup contains a burst of saltiness that mellows out, without much fattiness. The pork filling picks up the slack of the soup in terms of flavor.
Technique: 3; Flavor: 4
Tipsy Shanghai serves more Wuxi style soup dumplings. The main difference is that the soup is made from a sweet and dark soy sauce base that also has a light porky flavor. The dumplings are also relatively larger, where you can’t really eat an entire dumpling in one bite. The filling holds together, like that of a baozi, with more ginger and soy flavor.
The technique however isn’t highlightable. While there is an adequate amount of filling and soup, the skin is quite consistently thick.
Technique: 4; Flavor: 3
Zhengongfu is a casual fast dining chain in China, known for serving their food within 60 seconds of ordering. That’s probably an unrelated side note though; the food didn’t arrive promptly.
The soup dumplings pack a good deal of soup in a fairly thin wrapper. Given their moderate size, the filling is on the smaller end, but I get it.
The soup is light, less fatty or viscous relative to others. Even though it feels more stock like, there’s still hints of fat. It’s flavored to be intentionally a little sweet, also coming with a light soy like sauce that I can’t quite pinpoint.
Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao
Technique: 4; Flavor: 3
The soup dumplings have a pretty thin skin, a good amount of soup, and an adequate filling that’s on the smaller end. The soup dumpling holds its structure well when you use chopsticks to pick them up. The pleating at the top is noticeable though.
The flavor of the soup is pure but without much porkiness. The filling is soft and laced with pork fat instead.
They have quite a few varieties of soup dumpling here if you’re too curious for your own good: spicy, loofah, and even chocolate (I won’t spoil what else is inside). The spicy one is non-trivially spicy.
Memories of Shanghai
Technique: 3.5; Flavor: 4.5
The soup dumplings here are more in the Suzhou and Wuxi style — they’re bigger, sweeter, and the meat is seasoned with soy sauce.
The filling has a bit of ginger and spring onion, which enhance its porky flavors. The soup is also laced with fat and has an pleasant faint sweetness. I suspect a little bit of shaoxing wine is used, but they wouldn’t tell me the recipe.
The dumpling is big: you can barely eat one in a bite. The skin is not thin but also not too thick, though the large size of the dumpling makes it structurally unsound. The filling is just the right size, and there’s plenty of soup. The dumplings stick together when served, making it easy to break.
Taste of Shanghai
Technique: 3; Flavor: 5
This was the final place I visited — 2 years after starting this journey — and it was the only place that I found to have the flavors on point. Namely, it’s properly sweet. The soup is also laced with fat to yield a sweet and porky flavor, just like the kind you’d get in Shanghai.
The issue is that the skin is very thick. You notice it on the palate when the meat and soup have subsided away.
Technique: 4.5; Flavor: 4
The skin is very thin, translucent and almost jelly like in texture at parts — I haven’t quite seen something like this before. The soup is plentiful that it sags the dumping due to the thin skin. The filling is smaller but adequate in size, a little bit more coarse in texture. This makes the nib at the top noticeable.
The soup is sweet and salty, but slightly lacks the fat and porkiness that I crave. This is somewhat made up in the filling.
Joe’s Home of Soup Dumplings
Technique: 4.5; Flavor: 3.5
This is probably the most upscale soup dumpling specialist in the city. The dumplings are made in an open-kitchen where you can watch the artisans make and steam the dumplings to order.
The soup dumplings are large. The filling is glossy, packed with pidong (jelly) so there’s an admirable amount of soup. The skin is thin enough given its size, such that the dumpling is sort of droopy when you pick it up. The pleating isn’t noticeable compared to others of its size. The filling is generously large and also quite soft.
The dumplings taste savory and porky, with chunks of fat coming through. The filling is pure pork. I like how they add a piece of Chinese cabbage on the bottom instead of steam paper, pairing the pork with some sweet vegetable flavors. There’s also a unique spoon perfectly designed for their size of soup dumplings. The crab ones taste like dried seafood, not necessarily crab.
Deluxe Green Bo
Technique: 5; Flavor: 4
It’s a tie for the best, and Deluxe Green Bo is one of the two winners.
This place is no frills. You share tables with other guests. There are no tongs to help you pick up your dumplings. Cash only.
The soup dumplings here have some of the thinnest wrappers. In fact by that metric alone, they beat most places in Shanghai with ease. Despite this, the dumpling doesn’t break; it does this through a stickier and more glutinous skin. The filling and soup are just right in quantity.
The filling, laced with lard, breaks apart quickly. It tastes pure with only the slightest hint of ginger. The soup is also quite clean in flavor, rather agreeable and just so faintly sweet.
Technique: 5; Flavor: 4
Along with Deluxe Green Bo, this place is my go-to. The technique between the two feel indistinguishable, as if the same chef ran both operations.
The soup dumplings have an impressively thin skin, especially given the amount of soup it has. The soft filling blends blissfully into the soup, which is laced with fat yet still leaves a clean palate. Its flavor is lightly sweet and also acidic, with a hint of sesame oil.
The crab roe ones are also highly recommendable here. They actually have a good amount of roe and are rather aromatic.