Xiao Long Bao Showdown: Din Tai Fung vs. Shanghai Xiao Chi

Attention! I’ve just gotten out of a time traveling vehicle from the past to bring you xiao long bao showdown! So what if I missed the xlb bandwagon a few years ago? I still enjoy the dangerously hot soup dumplings.

Din Tai Fung is many people’s go-to spot for these dumplings, but not me.  The restaurant itself is crowded, a little too efficient, and I always feel rushed by the service there.  Sure, the big window in the front that overlooks the sterile-looking dumpling wrapping station is pretty cool and it’s a good place to bring people who are new to xlb’s, but I consider this more of a tourist location.

Xiao Long Bao Taste-offXiao Long Bao Taste-off

Their standard pork dumplings are always consistent. Because the skin is so thin, they’re extra delicate, so make sure to have your chopstick skills handy.  One time the BF went there, they brought him a basket of dumplings but they were all leaky with most of the soup gone!  My favorite dumplings here are the combination crab and pork ones. The extra savory taste of the crab makes the soup so stand out.

Xiao Long Bao Taste-off

Shanghai Xiao Chi is one of the other places I go to for xlb’s.  The wrapper has more substance, the meat is a little gingery, and the soup is great. The xlb’s seem more homey and rustic too, so maybe that’s why I like them.  The service is also pretty nice and relaxed.

Between the two, Shanghai Xiao Chi is my preferred choice.  The dumplings are larger and cheaper, compared to Din Tai Fung’s smaller, more expensive ones. There’s no cool window to look into, but after seeing that once, it doesn’t really matter.

Shanghai Xiao Chi
828 W Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 588-2284

Din Tai Fung
1108 S Baldwin Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007-7508
(626) 574-7068

Spring Wave

Previously, I wrote about Spring Wave in a Shanghainese Showdown but I didn’t write about all the dishes I got at the restaurant that night. It wasn’t fair to compare two restaurants when I ordered a number of other dishes from one of them but not the other, so I saved most of the other dishes for this post.

Spring Wave Shanghainese

The small eels with yellow chive, a famous dish in Shanghai was okay. It would have been better if it came to our table sizzling hot instead of just hot. The eels were tender, the sauce sticky and slightly sweet, and the dish was decent but lackluster.

Spring Wave Shanghainese

Next was the stir fried eggplant with Chinese string beans. When the BF and I usually go to a Chinese restaurant, we either order the eggplant or the string beans, but I think this is the first time we ordered a dish with the two vegetables together. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this sooner. The eggplant was well cooked, hot, and oily. The string beans were the same. The dish was cooked well, but generic tasting.

Spring Wave Shanghainese

We also ordered bean curd sheets with snow cabbage and edamame as an extra vegetarian dish. It’s usually a plain and comforting dish so I didn’t have high expectations for it, but it still managed to disappoint. The snow cabbage wasn’t washed well enough so every bite carried a bit of grit. It was not very appetizing.

Spring Wave Shanghainese

I had come to this restaurant on the recommendation of an acquaintance that it had good xiao long baos as well as some unusual versions: vegetarian and spicy. The vegetarian version was a misnomer because it was actually pork and vegetable. The spicy, I didn’t try because I wanted just a classic xiao long bao to start with.

When I took the first bite, I was impressed by the skin. It was thin without being too thin and the top wasn’t too doughy. My dad, pointed out that the tops of each dumpling were too perfect and they were surely machine made. He asked about them to the waiter who confirmed that they just bought them elsewhere. What a disappointment! What kind of Shanghai restaurant doesn’t make their own xiao long baos? I was glad I didn’t order the spicy ones.

Spring Wave Shanghainese

We also ordered the braised pork pump, one of my dad’s favorite dishes. This came out fall-off-the-bone tender and jiggling. The taste was good, but the meat was just too fatty — even for pork pump. Maybe it was folly for my dad and me to tackle such a filling, rich dish by ourselves because we ended up taking most of it home in a doggy bag.

I was excited to hear of a new Shanghainese restaurant opening in the area, but I was more excited to see vegetarian xiao long baos. The only place I’d seen it before was in Shanghai. Unfortunately, Spring Wave turned out to be a disappointment. No veggie xlb’s and the food wasn’t that good. Maybe it’s just a case of new-restaurant-itis but I hope they step up their game because they’re not going to last long in such a high-rent plaza if they don’t serve good food.

Spring Wave Restaurant
140 W Valley Blvd San Gabriel
CA 91776-3760
(626) 571-1178

Shanghainese Showdown in San Gabriel Square

I knew something was up when I visited my usual Shanghainese spot, Mei Long Village on a weekday night and it was literally empty when I walked in.  A couple weeks later, I learned that yes, there was a new Shanghainese restaurant only a few blocks away.  Through some mis-communication about Shanghainese restaurants in San Gabriel Square (aka Focus Plaza), the BF and I ended up at the wrong restaurant one night, so we returned a few nights later to our originally intended restaurant.

Considering both restaurants served Shanghainese food, I thought it’d be interesting to compare the two. I don’t remember what the official English name of the first one is, but it says “Shanghai Restaurant” in bold red letters on top of the restaurant, so that’s what I’m going to call it.  The second place, which I believe is new is called Spring Wave in English, but in Chinese, it adopted the same name as a famous restaurant in Shanghai which has two claims to fame: delicious family-style food, and being a restaurant former president Bill Clinton frequently dined at.

Shanghainese Dinner @ Shanghai RestaurantShanghainese Dinner @ Spring Wave
kao fu at Shanghai Restaurant (left) and Spring Wave (right)

First off, the kao fu — our standard cold appetizer.  The version from Shanghai Restaurant was cut into large chunks, on the sweet side, but decent.  The  sweetness is well known in Shanghainese cuisine.  Spring Wave’s take on it has smaller pieces and was braised with a darker liquid.  It was also more simple with just wheat gluten and shiitake mushrooms whereas Shanghai Restaurant’s had lily and peanuts in it.  The dish at Spring Wave might have sat too long in the fridge because it was almost too chewy and hard. Of the two, I liked Shanghai Restaurant’s better.

Shanghainese Dinner @ Shanghai RestaurantShanghainese Dinner @ Spring Wave
nian gao from Shanghai Restaurant (left) and Spring Wave (right)

Our next dish was stir fried nian gao with ji cai. Both places had the same type of nian gao, which is notable because they’re slightly larger and irregularly oval — unlike that of other Shanghainese restaurants.  I’m guessing these are either bought in long sticks and then sliced at the restaurant, or just a different brand.  Shanghai Restaurant’s was perfectly chewy with just the right softness.  I had told the waitress to make it vegetarian (the usual version of this dish has pork) and while there were no pieces of pork, it was suspiciously flavorful. Maybe they used MSG, but man, was it good. The greens tasted flavorful, the dish was perfectly salted, and the nian gao was satisfying.  In contrast, the same dish at Spring Wave was just okay.  The nian gao was on the softer side and the ji cai didn’t have that same savory taste.

I can’t ever go to a Shanghainese restaurant without ordering xiao long bao, so of course I ordered it at both.  Shanghai Restaurant’s had a decent skin that wasn’t too thin nor too thick, and the meat inside was okay, but man the broth was salty!  If only the broth wasn’t so salty, the dumpling would have been pretty good.  You’d think that based on that alone, Spring Wave’s would win out, but it didn’t.  I took a bite of Spring Wave’s version and thought the skin was good — almost too good.  My dad immediately pointed out that Spring Wave didn’t make their own xiao long bao.  If you look carefully, each dumpling looks exactly the same, which is a sign that it’s not hand-made.  When we asked the waiter about it, he pretty much confirmed that they bought it.  That disqualified Spring Wave from participating in this round.

Based on just the two vegetarian dishes, the clear winner is Shanghai Restaurant. The food just tasted better and the prices at both were about the same.  It’s a larger space and the restaurant itself seems more impersonal because of that since I usually like smaller Chinese restaurants where the servers aren’t always in a rush, but the food has proven to be better here.

Shanghai Restaurant and Spring Wave
San Gabriel Square
140 W Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776-3760