Shanghai Soup Dumplings at Dim Sum Garden

The first time we ever had Shanghai soup dumplings was in a little dive of a restaurant in Chinatown, NYC.  It was one of those places that has the names of the dishes written, in Chinese, in black marker on sheets of white copy paper taped to the walls.  For those among us who don’t speak or read the language, a much less interesting selection of items was provided by way of the formal printed menu.

Anyway, this place had an article about soup dumplings taped in its window, and they sounded interesting enough to take the $3 gamble.  Basically, Shanghai soup dumplings are steamed orders of dim sum that contain a volcanic-hot filling of pork, sometimes crab, and broth.  Once you learn the art of eating them without burning your lips off, they are absolutely amazing.

So, for the time that we lived in New Jersey, we would find ourselves in Chinatown every so often, and we’d always stop by the restaurant and overorder on soup dumplings.  After moving to Pennsylvania, our trips into NYC became less frequent, as did our intake of dim sum.

We’ve since found some excellent soup dumplings at Margaret Kuo’s in Wayne, but given how it’s kind of a high-end place, it’s not the kind of place you just happen to drop in whenever you have a hankering for dim sum.

Imagine our delight, then, to find that Dim Sum Garden, down by the Convention Center in Philadelphia, had Shanghai soup dumplings.

It is a rule of thumb that the worse a Chinese restaurant looks, generally the better the stuff that comes out of the kitchen.  Dim Sum Garden does not disappoint in this regard.  It is located in the tunnel that runs underneath the Convention Center on 11th Street, right next to the bus depot where all of the cheap NYC to PHL Chinatown buses collect and drop off passengers.  You need to walk through a cloud of exhaust fumes to get to the restaurant’s front door, and when you walk in, it looks like your average Chinese takeout joint, with a few tables and some counter space, all under bright white florescent lights.

We sat down and were pleased to find that there was table service, as a waitress said she’d be right with us.  Each of the tables has three small mugs – one for “dumpling sauce”, one for “ginger sauce” and one for “chile sauce”.

We ordered one order of pork soup dumplings and one of the pork and crab, along with a few other items for sampling – pork and chive dumplings, some siu mai, and an order of fried rice.  The food took a while to come out to us, which is a good sign – means they’re making everything to order, and nothing waits around.

The chive dumplings, siu mai, and fried rice debuted first.  The dumplings came across as fairly standard, and maybe I am confusing them with potstickers, but I expected them to be a little crisper – still, the chives were good and fresh, and we were starving, so it all went down easily.

The siu mai were not the typical pork-kind.  Instead, they were large pieces, stuffed with a mixture of meat and sticky rice.  All in all, they were delicious and made even better with the addition of either the dumpling sauce (thicker and sweet) or the ginger sauce (thinner).  Neither of us touched the chile sauce, as it was basically a vat of red pepper flakes floating in oil.  The fried rice was kind of bland, which was easily resolved with more sauce, but I wouldn’t order it again.

Finally, the soup dumplings arrived, and met our expectations completely.  The waitress asked us if we had eaten them before, obviously prepared to deliver a warning about popping one whole into your mouth and burning your esophagus.  We said that we were soup dumpling veterans, which seemed to make her happy.

Here’s the technique for eating a soup dumpling – using chopsticks, tongs, or your fingers, lift a dumpling and place it into the well of a Chinese soup spoon.  It’s going to be mad hot, so if you have tongs, all the better.  Now, carefully nibble a hole into the top doughy twist of the dumpling dough, so that you can let the steam escape.  If you want, you can dribble some soy or other sauce into the hole.  Blow on it and resist the urge to eat the dumpling until it cools off a little, because otherwise you’ll burn your tongue and not be able to taste anything for the rest of the meal (yes, been there, done that).  When it’s sufficiently cooled off, pop the thing into your mouth.

The soup dumplings were really great, especially after quite a long period of soup dumpling drought on our part.  While the dough could have been a little thinner, the fillings were especially top notch, especially the crab, which was far more delicate than I would have expected from a hole-in-the-wall bus station dive.

So, if you find yourself downtown for a convention and craving Chinese food, while everyone else goes into Chinatown proper, you can scurry the other way into the tunnel and treat yourself to Shanghai soup dumplings.  Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge I know of no other restaurant in PHL Chinatown that serves soup dumplings.