Jia Jia Tang Bao - How do their soup dumplings compare?

I just got back from a long weekend in Shanghai, where I fit in as much good eating as I could in 4 days. One place that had been on my must-visit list for a looooong time was Jia Jia Tang Bao, reportedly one of the best places for xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) in Shanghai. And since Shanghai claims xiaolongbao as a native food (others would argue that it orginated from surrounded towns), some afficionados think Jia Jia Tang Bao has some of the best in the world.

The ideal xiaolongbao, for the uninitiated, should have very thin, almost translucent skin, and equal parts soup and filling inside. I dream about these dumplings, and have tried so many poor versions that I want to cry every time. Often the skin is too think, sometimes there's not enough soup. When you are eating a perfect xiaolongbao, you should be worried about your clothes getting soup stains from a squirty dumpling.

The best xiaolongbaos I've had are from Din Tai Fung (sometimes spelled Ding Tai Feng), a rather upscale Taiwanese chain that has outlets in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, California, and some other places i don't remember. Foodies, including almost everyone on Chowhound who writes about Shanghai, constantly rate Jia Jia Tang Bao as equal to or almost-equal to Din Tai Fung.

So what's the main appeal over Din Tai Fung? Cost. JJTB is a grubby hole-in-the-wall where pork dumplings are 7.5 RMB for 15 and crab and pork dumplings are 19.5 RMB for 15. Din Tai Fung charges 4 to 5 times as much, for 5 extra dumplings per serving. A night out at the reigning xiaolongbao palace is not cheap, after factoring in appetizers and overpriced drinks.

So just how good are the xiaolongbao at JJTB? I went to find out on Saturday with my cousin Leona, who is working temporarily in Shanghai. True to the Chowhound warnings, the line was long, even at 2pm. We waited about 25 minutes for a table, and had to share it with the two women behind us in line who gave us ugly glares for no reason.

To my disappointment, JJTB was out of pork xiaolongbao. In fact, out of the 8 soup dumpling choices on the menu, only 2 were available: the crab and pork, and an 81 RMB serving with crab roe. As tempting as crab roe is, and as snobbish as this sounds, I am not one who goes to hole-in-the-walls to order 81 RMB items. We got two baskets of the crab and pork and two bowls of seaweed and egg soup. I waited for enlightenment as I took my first bite of xiaolongbao.

My first thought was, Hmm...Crunchy! My second thought was, Wait a minute, soup dumplings aren't supposed to be crunchy. Turns out, the crab wasn't picked through too carefully, so a tiny bit of shell went into maybe 1/3 of the dumplings. Granted, it wasn't much, but enough to ruin the transcendental experience. Otherwise, the filling was indeed very tasty, and there was enough soup. The wrapper wasn't as thin as I'd like, but good enough.

Din Tai Fung, with its impeccable dumplings and service, remains my favorite. (Their crab version is crunch-free, and intensely flavorful.) But Jia Jia Tang Bao is good enough for a nice lunch around People's Square, or when you don't want to plop down 250 rmb for a soup dumpling fix. (And maybe their pork-only dumplings are better.) Rasa Malaysia has also suggested I try Shanghai Uncle and Shanghai Moon, though I didn't get a chance to on this trip. But no worries...I'm already planning my next trip down.

Jia Jia Tang Bao 90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu Shanghai 021-63276878