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Chen’s Shanghai Restaurant
8095 Park Road
Open six days a week (excl. Wed)
11:00am to 3:00pm
5:00pm to 10:00pm
Expectations. More often than not, they are always hard to live up to. When it comes to certain cuisine or dishes, the pressure can come from many angles, and the online foodie blogging community is certainly one of the more formidable. For a while now, I’ve read about the many high praises for the steamed Xiaolongbao (also known by shorthand as XLB, or soup dumplings) being served at Chen’s Shanghai Restaurant located in the city of Richmond. Now I have only traveled to China a handful of times, but have had great Chinese cuisine, including Xiaolongbao, in nearby Asian countries as well, so do have some experience with eating this dish. I’ve seen it come in several forms, large and small, some with more pronounced leaf-like edging on the skin caused by a tighter twist when forming, others with a thicker, less translucent skin, and insides filled with soup and meat generally, but I’ve eaten seafood filled ones as well.
So on a recent visit to Richmond, I decided to stop by and see for myself what marvels this kitchen was pumping out to generate such a positive buzz from all over the region. Being in the area for the first time, it was easy to find just off a major road, though scanning the strip mall in which it was located took a few minutes, as well as finding a parking spot, just after six pm on a weekday. Luckily once inside, I could see the front half of the place was filled, but a lady yelled and beckoned me to sit at a table in the open area where I could see the small glass enclosed stand where apparently the Xiaolongbao were made (nobody was stationed in there while I was in the restaurant however). There were a few menus on the table as well as some serving plates, bowls, chopsticks, and coincidentally small dishes filled with rice vinegar with fine slivers of ginger (as if expecting me to order the Xiaolongbao). Opening up the menu I was afraid it would be entirely in Chinese, and some sections were like page one. Therefore, I asked if there was an English cheat sheet for this part and a server quickly brought me a one page English checklist of items like their dim sum, soup noodles, etc. Hurray!
With my intent to satisfy my curiosity about the Xiaolongbao, I quickly checked that off, and feeling in the mood for some noodles but not in a soup form which would be harder to share with my dining partner, selected the Shanghai-style, pan-fried noodles. Lastly, the smoked duck with Chinese tea and sugar item caught my attention, so went with that as well. Now I know probably this is not the usual set one better versed in this restaurant’s menu would order, and I am sure some readers can confirm that for me. Looking around, I could see that many tables had the steamed baskets on them, so took that as a good sign. However, later realized that the soup noodle dishes were quite popular too, as they came streaming out of the kitchen – and thought maybe I had made the wrong call to go with the pan-fried variation. As soon as the server took our order, I swear not thirty seconds later she was back at our table with a small printout of our order (no dollar figures showing though) – talk about quick!
The darkly coated noodles came out first, hot on the plate with strings of cabbage and onions, flavors were mild. Not bad but nothing spectacular and made me think I had really gone wrong by not picking a soup version.
Next came the bamboo basket I was waiting for filled with six Xialongbao. First impression, they seemed… well, a bit deflated; as I’ve seen others in the past that were made from the same unrisen flour that is still smooth/translucent but retaining a bold, upright structure and just filled to the max with soup. These ones looked like the life had been sucked right out of them and I was beginning to worry about just how much soup was (still) inside, as I could not spot any apparent leaks. First bite, wow, the soup is hot! Should have waited a while before digging in, but luckily it was cradled in my soupspoon so no liquid lost. I must say, the soup was the best part of the whole package, great flavors! The skin after peeling it back, was a bit thicker than I normally prefer, though can understand the challenges of getting the right balance of thickness while still being able to retain the soup inside the packet. The core ball of ground pork with a slight hint of ginger was so-so. I think that is where my preference for seafood comes into play, as meat always seems to just shrink up and become a tight wad that is boring to chew.
The final dish to arrive, the smoked duck, was definitely the showstopper on this night and made my dinner! The skin was so crispy and the half portion we ordered had a nice mix of meatier and fattier parts, with both the breast and leg meat represented. Could definitely smell the tea flavor on both the skin and immersed within the meat itself, and the seasoning was amazing. I could not help reach for more after I was done with each piece, and at the end, I definitely had more leftover bones on my plate than my dinner guest – lucky for me she knows that I am a unshy carnivore.
So as a wrap up tally… the main goal of checking out the Xiaolongbao was accomplished, albeit I came away from that particular dish without the overwhelming sense of satisfaction and comments laced with superlatives as can be found on other blogs/boards when describing this dish at this particular place. I’m not saying its bad, as I am sure there are worse out there, but just that the reality did not meet the expectations for me. Be it personal preference, true lack of understanding of the authenticity of Xiaolongbao, etc. who knows, but I must say its a dish I am not having a strong craving for on a constant basis, and honestly not something I’d go out of the way to have again in Richmond. The smoked duck though, that I will go back for in a heartbeat!