Journey With Me to The Magic Kingdom of Dough!
The first time we tried to go to Zhi Wei Guan, we trekked down to Chinatown in Philadelphia on one of the coldest nights of the winter. Motivated by the anticipation of steaming bowls of soup and freshly prepared soup dumplings, we parked the car in one of the parking decks and booked it for four blocks down Race Street, with the residual heat from the car dissipating almost immediately upon setting foot to pavement. With our fingers numb and teeth chattering, we finally came within view of the restaurant, whose entrance had been decorated festively with blinking mini lights. Ascending the steps to the front door two at a time, we put a shivering hand on the door handle, only to find that no manner of pushing or pulling would open the door.
As we stood there in the dark – forlorn, cold, and hungry – a young woman came to the door wearing a heavy winter coat and explained, in heavily accented english, that their pipes had frozen, there was no water to run the restaurant, and that they, unfortunately, were closed. That night, the Magic Kingdom of Dough, as the restaurant is also named, became the Magic Kingdom of Doh.
At that point, it was too cold to think, let alone walk very far. We ended up eating an overly priced, faintly disappointing meal at a hastily chosen random Chinese restaurant up the street. In hindsight, that meal ended up being way more expensive, and far inferior, to what we could have had at Zhi Wei Guan, had Mother Nature not intervened that evening. So it was with some measure of triumph that, a few weekends ago, we finally had the opportunity to return to Zhi Wei Guan, this time for real. We not only found them open and fully operational, but also so courteous and talented as to set a new standard for Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia.
We were part of a large group of 13 people, which presented a rare opportunity to try a greater variety of dishes than we would normally order for ourselves. In other words, while we usually order too much food for the two of us when it comes to soup dumplings and dim sum, that night gave us the chance to order way too much food for 13 people. True to form, we discovered that overzealous ordering scales very well to larger group sizes.
Dinner started with the mandatory order of Xiao Long Bao, which is the name that would appear on a soup dumpling’s birth certificate, if soup dumplings had birth certificates. Since we’ve been friends with Xiao Long Bao for many years, I’m taking the liberty of referring to them as soup dumplings for the rest of this entry (and even the restaurant’s menu refers to them as “juicy buns”, so there). At Zhi Wei Guan, soup dumplings are available in two varieties, the traditional pork and what the restaurant calls “three flavors”, which adds shrimp and mushrooms to the mix. To judge the level of craftmanship behind a well-made soup dumpling, one need look no further than the delicate nature of the steamed dough that surrounds the meat and broth. Soup dumplings should not be overly doughy and thick – the wall of the delicacy should be thin, and just substantial enough to withstand the steaming process and the journey from steamer to spoon to mouth. For a place named The Magic Kingdom of Dough, Zhi Wei Guan did not disappoint, and both varieties of soup dumpling were perfect examples of the art, light satchels holding a generous portion of meat nestled in warm, velvety broth. Are they as good as Dim Sum Garden? Honestly, I can’t tell you – it’s a pretty tight race.
Alongside the soup dumplings, we also ordered the pork and vegetable dumplings. Given the option of having them steamed or pan fried, we chose the pan fried variety, and were treated to compact squares of crisped dough, encasing a nice pack of greens, chives, and pork – all of which was complemented perfectly by the soy and vinegar dipping sauce that was provided as an accompaniment. A dish of bok choy was perfectly prepared – stir fried until tender but still with some crunch to the stalks. In fact, I’ve never had better bok choy anywhere else.
Sui Mai, a staple of Chinese dim sum houses everywhere, did not disappoint. Larger than what I was accustomed to, the Sui Mai were certainly substantial, the meaty pork filling wrapped tightly and steamed, with four pieces to an order. I can’t say that they were the best Sui Mai I’ve ever had (for there are many dim sum houses and Sui Mai is one of the harder things to screw up) but they were certainly very good.
I eagerly anticipate the arrival of warmer weather so that we can return to Zhi Wei Guan and walk off our meal afterwards in the streets of Chinatown, instead of running back to the car. The best part about eating at Zhi Wei Guan, and in Chinatown in general, is the price. At the end of the meal, when our pro-rata portion of the bill was calculated, the owner handed me a little slip of receipt paper with our total written in pen – $20.19. You can’t get better than that, especially in Philadelphia.