If There’s A Perk To Jury Duty In Manhattan, It’s Lunch At Joe’s Shanghai
At this point, Joe’s Shanghai on Pell Street needs no introduction to New York City foodies, as it is considered (generally) the Manhattan birthplace (or early adopter, or perfecter) of that prized piece of dim sum: Xiao Lon Bao, or Soup Dumplings.
Like Magnolia Bakery, this insider-y place wound up explosively taking off (though without the benefit of a viral video) because if there’s been a chocolate and peanut butter moment since, well, chocolate and peanut butter, it is soup and dumplings.
For the remote few of few who are unfamiliar with soup dumplings, they are dumplings where there is a small portion of delicious, piping hot soup within the dumpling‘s casing, along with the savory mix of meat inside.
They are not, therefore, dumplings served in a bowl of soup, so we’re clear.
Joe’s is probably at this point on just about every tourist’s Chinatown hit list, or so it seemed when I stopped in to get lunch during jury duty on nearby Center Street. There was a group of people who appeared to be from Tampa (or Boise) gathered outside the shop, smiling (as well they should be).
Inside, the place was about a 50-50 mix of people of Asian descent and non-Asians. When I walk into an “ethnic” restaurant I hope to see a hefty representation of the ethnicity responsible for the food. That, in a restaurant, usually signifies to me that the food it is selling has retained its authentic quality. I think most foodies would agree: you want to see lots of Koreans at a Korean BBQ joint, Afghans in an Afghan place, Russians in Russian joint, and so on and so on.
At any rate, this place is so wildly popular with non-Asians that I took the ratio to actually be pretty good, considering it was lunch. At least it continues to play well with its core constituency, or so it seems. I was seated at a communal table next to a couple who seemed to speak only Chinese, ordering sans menu.
The waiter knew right away what I wanted (naturally), so a menu wasn’t necessary for me either. Since it was just me, a single order of xiao lon bao would easily suffice.
For the uninitiated, xiao lon bao are not pretty. They look like scrota. They essentially have the exact same function: a casing around a ball of meat and fluid. The meat, in this case, is a mixture of crabmeat and pork, and it is very delicious.
Eating xiao lon bao requires technique.
The most important step in this technique is, by far, the first: do not eat them right away when they are served. No no no no no. They are brought to your table at nuclear heat. If you greedily gobble one up, you will scald your mouth so badly that all you will be eating is strips of your atomized gum and cheeks that dangle between your teeth. Do not do that.
Step two of eating xio lon bao: proper transference of the dumpling to the spoon. It is important that you use the metal tongs to grip the dumpling around the pinched “nipple” at the top of it. Approach from the side, and you will tear your dumpling’s skin, and all the soup will run out of it. Grip from the top, pull straight up, and quickly get your spoon underneath it.
Step three of eating xiao lon bao is nearly as important as step one: blow. Blow on them. You must blow on them when they first arrive. Do not be fooled by them not seeming to radiate steaming vapor. They are incredibly hot within. Blow on your dumplings, you won’t be sorry.
Step four: ladle on a portion of the ginger/dumpling sauce mixture they are served with.
The ginger soy wakes things up. The dumplings, when they are served, come complete with piping hot broth. The noodle wrapping is a touch doughy. The broth within is surprisingly fatty. Maybe not surprising, considering the pork involved. The crabmeat flavor shows up when the overall temperature is not at nuclear meltdown proportion. That said, once it does show up, it still complements the pork, doesn’t overwhelm it.
Oddly, there is a strong sour note in the ginger/soy mix… .
Step five (advanced users only, if not skip to step six): Grip the “nipple” of the dumpling with your chopsticks. Both hands are now involved, one supporting the spoon with the dumpling, the other manipulating the chopsticks and gripping the top of the dumpling. Pull gently upward with the chopsticks, not enough to lift the dumpling out of the spoon, but enough to create tension around it and a well within the dumpling for remaining soup to travel to before overrunning and spilling into the spoon itself.
Step six: bite into the side, pressing your lips against the dumpling and creating a seal. Commence sucking down the delicious soup as it floods through the bite.
Step seven: gobble the rest when you can.
If you have followed those steps correctly, you will enjoy the full combination of textures and flavors xiao lon bao offers.
Personally, I generally prefer to eat them in one large, close-mouthed bite once they are sufficiently cool. Then the whole thing bursts in your mouth and is just spectacularly awesome.
Is it the case that you can get cheaper soup dumplings in Chinatown? Maybe. But, damn, that level of quality for that price, hoo boy.
(For the record, I ordered the beer only once I was done with jury duty for the day).