The Best Soup Dumplings in San Diego
My hunt for the best xiao long bao in the city unearthed two surprising winners
Photo: Claire Smith
Soup dumplings are the food on San Diego’s red carpet right now. They are the employee of the month at Instagram. They have been ever since the arrival of Din Tai Fung. The famed Taiwanese chain opened in Taipei 50 years ago, spinning off multiple locations across the globe and eventually earning one Michelin star for their Hong Kong depot. Now they’ve got 13 locations in the US, including the brand-new, massive 10,000-square-foot outpost at Westfield UTC. The fact that their initials are DTF has not dissuaded crowds. The lines for DTF are downright messianic (45 minutes to an hour wait). They’re famous for xiao long bao (soup dumpling cognoscenti use the shorthand XLB), the Shanghai specialty of dumplings stuffed with soup and pork or seafood.
The wiccan trickery of XLB is how cooks get the soup in there, like erecting a ship in a bottle or squeezing furniture into a New York apartment.
The secret is making soup with plenty of gelatin. Traditionally, chefs do that by including pigs’ feet, pork bones, and skin, all of which have plenty of gelatin and collagen (some places cheat by using commercial gelatin or agar). When a gelatin-heavy soup cools to room temp or is refrigerated, it solidifies into a sort of meat Jell-O. Yes, this sounds gross, but you should get over it. Chefs cut that meat Jell-O into little cubes and lay them on a flat dumpling (flour and water) next to a ground meat filling (traditionally pork, but it can be other meats or seafood). They then cinch up the dumpling with 12–18 pleats, place them in a special bamboo cooking vessel, and steam them.
When steamed, the meat Jell-O melts. The result is silky-chewy little dumpling purses with a hot cauldron of soup and a quasi-meatball in the middle.
There’s an art to eating these things without ending up in a burn ward. Bite right into it, and you’ll need to gargle bacitracin or get a new mouth. Use your chopsticks to delicately transfer the dumpling to the soup spoon. Poke a couple holes in the top of the dumpling with your chopstick, or bite off the pinched top. This’ll release the steam and start cooling the soup, with the spoon serving as safe harbor for any of the sacred broth inside. Slurp the soup, or just eat it whole once it’s a reasonable temp.
The traditional accompaniment for XLB is shredded ginger in black vinegar—a Chinese specialty made with steamed rice, water, and koji (Aspergillus oryzae, a fungus that thrives on rice and is also used in brewing sake), then aged like balsamic vinegar. The black shade comes from the use of charred rice. The vinegar isn’t nearly as sweet as balsamic, and provides the acid that’s needed to offset the warm, rich soup dumpling.
I spent the last week taste-testing San Diego restaurants renowned for their XLB, on a hunt for the best the city has to offer. Could any, I wondered, stand up to Din Tai Fung—the 800-pound gorilla in the xiao long bao space? For me and my dining companion for the hunt, it wasn’t even close. Here’s what we found:
Tradition is both a buoy and an anchor. The trick is saving the part of it that keeps you afloat, and ditching the part that holds you down. For me, the part that’s always held XLB down is the soup broth. Traditionally, it’s a very simple broth made of bones, ginger, and scallions. But we’re living in the golden age of broth. And Facing East’s broth was easily the most deep, flavorful broth of the six we tasted. The pork meat inside was a little dense and tough (this happens to quasi-meatballs if they’re overworked or fussed with too much before cooking), but the flavor was spot on. Drizzle some of that chili paste over the top, plus some of that black vinegar. Doesn’t get much better than this. 4647 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
Tough to say which was superior between this and Facing East, but both were pretty far ahead of the others we tasted. Steamy Piggy is a little Instagram of a restaurant, with cute plants and a photo-op wall featuring a fake-plant piggy. Plus, metal chopsticks. They claim on their website to use “only the freshest ingredients in our dishes, with no added MSG or artificial coloring.” And the taste of their XLB sure proofs this claim out, with perfectly seasoned tender pork filling and a delicious broth. They’ve got both the black vinegar and chili paste, plus their Steamy Piggy sauce, which is like a combo of chili oil, soy, vinegar, and various aromatics. 4681 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
This shocked me, and could get me run out of town. Dumpling Inn was one of the first San Diego restaurants to specialize in XLB. The XLB OG. And they make consistently good Chinese food. Three years ago they sold to one of the most respected Asian food restaurateurs in town (who also owns Minh Ky in City Heights). But their XLB just don’t hold up to the new competition, mostly because of the broth, which is thin, a little watery, tasting mostly of ginger. I’m so confident in Dumpling Inn’s food, and was shocked by how lukewarm my heart was for their XLB, that I went back twice to make sure I didn’t just get a mediocre batch. Tried them with and without black vinegar (They don’t automatically serve it; you have to ask for it). Same result. It may be the most traditional XLB we tried, but in the current boom of phenomenal broths, that authenticity holds their XLB down. 4625 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
The legend. The global xiao long bao icon. And at least third on the list of our favorites, if not in the bottom half. Their dumpling dough was arguably the best—perfectly elastic and thin, yet sturdy enough to contain the soupy payload. The problem is there simply isn’t much soup in these dumplings, just a small thimble of just-okay broth. For their meat, they use kurobuta pork—excellent, top-of-the-line pork—but the seasoning induces shrugs. They even have a version with black truffles, but mostly all you taste is truffle (truffles are godfood, but it shouldn’t be the only show in an XLB). I have to think that the xiao long bao at their flagship restaurant in Taiwan is more revelatory, more Michelin starrish. But with 13 US locations and more abroad, serving millions of people a year, it’s not terribly surprising that the mass production drags their XLB toward the middle. At the end of the day, if a visitor asked, “Where should I go for the best soup dumpling in San Diego?” would I send them to a mall to wait an hour for these? The answer isn’t yes. 4545 La Jolla Village Drive, Westfield UTC
Above-average-to-good XLB. A little bigger than the other places, served piping hot. You can watch a cook flatten out the dough, fill them, and cinch them up through a kitchen aquarium window. Not bad, not wow. 3865 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
Perfectly acceptable XLB. But more like a shrug for two reasons—not enough broth, and the dumplings tasted too much of flour, which suggests they didn’t steam long enough (or didn’t use hot enough water to mix the dough, which starts cooking it and forms the gluten). The trick with XLB is to cook them just long enough to cook the dumpling through, but not overcook the meat inside. 4646 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
I wanted to love Red Moon’s XLB. I really did. This is Old Convoy—just a modest box in a strip mall with a kindly, hospitable owner standing at a dais. A ceiling tile is missing, exposing electrical wires. They serve white vinegar with their XLB. Their dough was the biggest problem, again a little undercooked and tasting of raw baking ingredients. 4646 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa