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.

March 23, 2009   Comments

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.

June 5, 2008   Comments