In the Court of the Dumpling King

shangahi dumpling.jpg
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Sheng jian bao: Worthy of coronation.

Old episodes of Check, Please! Bay Area aren't always the best barometer of local restaurant excellence, but in the case of Shanghai Dumpling King, one came through like the Earl of Warwick. Local Filipino-American writer and St. Mary's College English professor Lysley Tenorio, the 2008 recipient of a Whiting Award, appeared on the show back in March, and effectively made his case for the eatery's xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. 

"This restaurant is indeed the king of dumplings, and we are its royal (and loyal) subjects," he wrote in his review. "You pick up the dumpling with a spoon, give it a quick dip into a bit of soy sauce and vinegar, and bite. Since we'd celebrated Christmas the week before, the soup dumplings were the perfect present to open on Christmas night. The slippery floury pouch and the tender bit of pork inside mix perfectly with the hot and just-salty-enough soup.... It was the gift that kept on giving."

A few recent visits bore out his observation, and unearthed a host of other delectables worthy of coronation. The hung zhou ($8.95), tidy steamed purses of crab and pork, hinge on the universally compelling union of rich swine and sweet, mild Dungeness flakes, a tidy, perfect surf-and-turf in miniature. The pan-fried chives and meat pastries ($4.65) are pale, puck-sized discs, crispy-brown on either side, the dough thick and wonderfully oily, like a good scallion pancake. No spurts of molten, slightly sweet soup slosh around the interior, just ground meat and snips of fresh green.

Some might balk at the distracted service and the inconsistent prices. As Tenorio pointed out, courses do not always arrive in logical sequence. Likewise, the puffy golden globes of egg and air circulating the dining room throughout the night may be gratis or an added expense -- depending, presumably, on the manager's temperament. You should grab a few regardless. They're even good with jam the next day.

One night, a loud man in bright blue overalls lolled on a chair near the door, reading a paperback, his small round table littered with plates and baskets, the remnants of what had clearly been an unhurried repast. "I smell smoke," he barked suddenly, half-jumping out of his seat and gesturing frantically at the nearest waitress. "Someone's smoking a cigarette -- this is appalling!" She smiled and shrugged as if she hadn't understood his
complaint.

Without a doubt, he was right. Someone, perhaps a cook, another waitress, or a customer turning the corner, walking past the back of the restaurant, was lighting up, and fragrant wafts from that smoky treat were brazenly drifting through the main dining room on gusts of brisk Outer Richmond wind. Yet, to a focused dumpling aficionado, such sticking points are just seasoning, a little atmosphere to seal the deal, sour to meet sweet -- in the court of the dumpling king.

Shanghai Dumpling King 3319 Balboa (at 34th Ave.), 387-2088


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