In the trophy hunts of the food world, perfect xiao long bao (Shanghai-style soup dumplings) are a top prize.
Internet forums brim with those questing for the elusive delicacy: a perfectly pleated, tender wrapper that gushes with hot — and potentially dangerous — broth when you bite into it. Until recently, good ones have been hard to come by in Sacramento.
But a recent flowering of dumpling-focused places is expanding our fair city’s access not only to what the cognoscenti call XLB, but also their humbler but no less delicious cousins, such as potstickers and steamed dumplings. Diners will even find such delectable rarities as pan-fried buns filled with soup broth (sheng jian bao).
This column is the first of an occasional series of roundups, which will offer mini-reviews of thematically similar restaurants in an effort to provide broader coverage of Sacramento’s thriving casual and inexpensive dining scene.
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Here, we focus specifically on restaurants that offer a menu specializing in Chinese dumplings of various styles (with apologies to the gluten-sensitive, all have wheat-based wrappers). This piece thus excludes the many dim sum houses where offerings vary and you must sit down to sample the filled delights. But it means you can drop in at one of these places for a reliable, savory dumpling snack just about any time.
Whether you yearn for basic dumpling love or hard-to-find treats, we’ve got you covered below.
For XLB Hunters on a Mission: I-Shanghai Delight
I’m calling it: This newer spot below ground in Old Sacramento has the best and most intriguing soup dumplings in town. With thin skins jiggling with full-bodied broth and a choice of several flavors, these dumplings are the bomb. Sometimes literally. Eat carefully and beware of soupsplosions.
We loved the spicy pork XLB, but there’s also plain pork, crab roe pork and shrimp pork. The pan-fried pork buns, with a sweetish yeasted wrapper, are beautifully golden and crunchy at the base and full of soup as well.
I-Shanghai, which is an offshoot of a Fremont branch, also offers many other and delicacies not seen on many Sacramento menus. We loved the salted soybean milk with a “Chinese donut” and minced preserved vegetables, as well as its polar opposite, the sweet, luscious steamed purple sticky rice with red bean paste, which tasted like a Shanghai spin on a Christmas pudding.
Bracing stir-fried greens were excellent and a way to add some fiber to the meal, but you might just want to keep eating soup dumplings forever. Need a break? There’s a window to the kitchen where diners can see dumpling pleating in process. It’s hypnotic to watch, but not as good as biting into one of the beautifully executed products.
Old Sacramento has long been a partial dining desert, but no more. Those spicy pork soup dumplings are reason enough to brave the parking.
1115 Front Street., Sacramento
Info: 916-400-3609, www.ishanghaidelightsacramento.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Monday.
Dumpling rating: ☆☆☆☆
For Pan-Fried, Adorable Snack Heaven: Dumpling & Tea House
Friendly and welcoming in the heart of Land Park, the simply named Dumpling and Tea House is exactly as advertised and the perfect place for an easy, affordable snack. It has cute, bright, dumpling-themed décor and very good dumplings, They’re all in a half-moon shape (no soup dumplings here), in several flavors: pork and vegetable, pork and chive, the surprisingly good chicken and corn, kimchi pork, shrimp and chicken, and vegetable. They’re also available frozen by advance order, if you’d like to stockpile.
Milk and bubble teas, plus a few rice and noodle bowls and snack items, round out a menu that’s equally appealing to McClatchy students who need study sustenance, neighborhood moms or dumpling hounds, like yours truly. Pan-fried dumplings take a few extra minutes but are well worth the wait for the tooth-sticking crunch on the moderately thick, hand-hewn golden wrappers. Pan-frying adds an extra dollar to the modest cost of $7.39 for a dozen dumplings, as does adding broth. A dozen might sound like a lot for a snack, but my favorite — the pork and chive — disappeared almost instantly when my children got near them. Get more than you think you need.
Dumpling & Tea House
3000 Freeport Blvd. Ste 4, Sacramento
Info: 916-917-5862. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
Dumpling rating: ☆☆☆½
For No-Frills Dumpling Gluttony: Hao Bao Dumpling House
Shiny and new at just 3 months old, Hao Bao stands as a lone dumpling sentinel in a sea of pho at the southern end of Stockton Boulevard. The setup is fast-casual and the menu reads like a Chipotle of dumplings: you pick your filling, your finish (steamed, pan-fried or deep fried) and your sauce. Dumplings can also be served in soup, swimming with noodles and bok choy, and filled buns are also available — but not much else. Everything comes in little cardboard boats or takeout containers.
Our order-taker steered us to pan-fried dumplings, and she didn’t steer us wrong. The beef dumplings are especially good, with a deep, earthy five-spice flavor. Vegetarian dumplings have the musky note of mushrooms, and everything tastes fresh and well made. Cheap, cheerful and fast, Hao Bao is the perfect stop when you’re in a hurry or you want to eat a very large number of dumplings for not much money. So: how about some dumplings?
Hao Bao Dumpling House
6821 Stockton Boulevard, Sacramento.
Info: 916-661-6581, www.haobaodumpling.com. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Dumpling rating: ☆☆☆
For the Adventurous Traveler: Journey to the Dumpling
A lion in Journey to the Dumpling’s logo places a protective paw over his pleated dumpling, and no wonder: These dumplings are worth not just a the short trip to Elk Grove but also a little leonine aggression.
Journey to the Dumpling’s pleasant dining room feels sleek and modern yet cozy, an aura enhanced by clouds of steam from the bamboo baskets holding squat little broth bombs.
A shade less ethereal than the soup dumplings at I-Shanghai, the XLB here are nevertheless savory and rich. Pan-fried pork buns are crunchy and sweet with corn kernels, and regular dumplings come in several filling options — including vegetarian, in a green wrapper, and a zippy ginger-scallion chicken variety. They come steamed, but can be pan-fried to a pleasing crunch at no extra charge.
Service at Journey to the Dumpling — which merited three stars in a full review from The Bee’s Carla Meyer in 2017 — is unusually welcoming and kind, though all these places were friendly; maybe dumplings have a good effect on mood. There’s a diverse menu of non-dumpling offerings as well: noodle dishes, soups (including, yes, soups with dumplings) and a section of vegetarian items. No wonder that lion looks so proud.
Journey to the Dumpling
419 Laguna Blvd., Suite 180, Elk Grove.
Info: 916-509-9556, www.journeytothedumpling.com. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Dumpling rating: ☆☆☆½
For Lovers of the Rough-Hewn: Yang’s Noodles
Yang’s Noodles, which focuses on northern Chinese and Taiwanese fare, has a well-earned reputation as one of the best Chinese places in town for its rich beef noodle soup, the irresistible beef roll and many other items. It earned three stars in a 2014 Bee review by Blair Anthony Robertson.
Yang’s also does a brisk business in handmade dumplings, and for a long time was one of the only places in town to get soup dumplings. However, the dumplings here are of a different style than the other places mentioned, with rough-and-ready feel, much like the noodles in the famed beef soup. The soup dumplings here were thick-skinned and clumsy; ours stuck to the little cups they were served in and tore, spilling the gelatinous broth. They still, however, tasted good, as dumplings tend to do.
Steamed dumplings were similarly thick; if you like a toothsome, hefty dumpling, this is the spot for you. A more refined choice was the potstickers, a ho-hum option at many restaurants. Here, they were clearly folded to order and were thinner, with a juicy, excellent, gingery filling. Yang’s also stands out for its zingy dipping sauce, served in generous ladlefuls.
Is this a perfect dumpling destination? No, but if you’re here for a bowl of that beef soup, a plate of dumplings can’t hurt.
5860 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento.
Info: 916-392-9988. www.yangs-noodles.com. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Monday.
Dumpling rating: ☆☆½