The waiter brought out a kettle of tea, but Nancy Togami waved him back, asking for just plain hot water. Carefully, she used her thermometer to check the water temperature. One hundred and eighty degree Fahrenheit, too cool to steep the Baochong and Phoenix Honey that she brought. But Nancy brought her own water too, which measured close to 200 degrees, so we used her water instead. I’ve never brought my own tea to a restaurant, but it makes sense: people bring their own wine to restaurants, and when you have good teas, there’s no reason to refrain from pairing them with good food. The dim sum at Shanghai Dumpling King proved to be perfect experiment material.
Without Nancy, I probably would never have known of this hole in the wall way out on the west side of San Fran, and probably too lazy to get here because it’s not 2 blocks away from the BART and I’d doubt the dim sum would be worth anything farther than that. Now, dim sum are good. You have to really suck as a cook to make ground meat in a piece of dough taste bad (it happens, though), and I crave potstickers and xiao long bao at least once every other night, but the gap between the potsticker in my head and the potsticker in my mouth always ended up bigger than my head, so I can’t comprehend it. There’s some kind of epiphany reaction I want to get from eating dim sum that I’ve never gotten. But I think today came really, really close. Because of a duck and two teas.
The duck set the mood. We stood in front of the restaurant before it opened, so they had to rush setting up things to let us in. We were the first customers of a Sunday. Few minutes after we placed our order, the guy strode out asking if we would like some duck, the kitchen just finished steaming one. Yes, of course, we said. Out came small chunks of legs and thighs in a simple white bowl with a sprig of coriander, the meat still pink, the skin moist in a sunglow shade. It’s not chewing gum and it doesn’t fall apart like cornmeal, it has all the right tenderness, the right juiciness, the right saltiness. I couldn’t pry any information from the waiter except that it’s steamed. But they must’ve put something in the water.
The Hung Zhou crab and pork dumpling (Hung Zhou xie ruo xiao long bao) and the Shanghai soup dumpling (Shang Hai xiao long bao) both contain half a spoon’s worth of broth. They’re the juiciest xiao long bao I’ve found anywhere, and the Hung Zhou xie ruo ones are packed with enough savory sweetness on their own that they don’t need the vinegar and soy dipping sauce.
We got too absorbed in the xiao long bao that we didn’t pair any tea until the seafood and tofu eggdrop soup and the Tian Jing go bu li bao (steamed wheat dumpling with pork, mushroom and rice noodle inside) came. One one hand, Baochong, a light Taiwanese oolong, accentuates the chive in the bao, and the bao intensifies the Baochong’s floral note, so the pair just blooms in your mouth.
On the other, Phoenix Honey is a stronger oolong with a roasty profile and a sweetness of lychee, which complements the soothing eggdrop soup.
The spicy pork dumpling (xian shui jiao) kicked us in the throat, although we asked for “not too spicy”, but Baochong can sooth the spark away. The pan fried chive and pork dumpling (jiu cai xian bing) and Baochong made another floral pair, similar to their steamed smaller brothers. Phoenix Honey brought forth the nuttiness of fresh-but-need-more-salt peashoots.
Soon we figured out the rules: lighter tea with more flavorful dumplings, darker tea with milder ones. The sesame mochi in hot water (zhi ma tang yuan) is bland outside and intensely sweet inside, so neither tea had a noticeable effect on it, but the Phoenix Honey added a nice roasty finish that spotlighted the nuttiness of sesame.
After eating here, I regained faith in dim sum. I can look pass the obnoxious name. The duck helped. And the teas helped a bunch. Infusion after infusion, they kept their flavors and washed clean the dumplings’ grease, which was surprisingly scarce to begin with. Nancy was worried that the restaurant might not like us brewing our own tea. But we were seated by the window, our table filled with bamboo baskets, I was aiming my camera at all kinds of angles, Ken helped me rearranging the plates for the pictures, and Nancy was drawing in the aroma of a fresh cup. Old Chinese ladies walking on the streets kept stopping to look at our table with unhidden interest. I think we made a good window display. At the end, before politely asking us to leave the table for another group waiting, our waiter commented with much pleasantry: “You guys drink tea!”
Address: Shanghai Dumpling King
3319 Balboa Street
San Francisco, CA 94121
Big lunch for three: ~ $62
This post also appears on Flavor Boulevard.