Ah, the xiao long bao. Shanghainese in origin, these diminutive dumplings begin life as balls of raw, minced pork embedded with bits of aspic. The pork morsels are then carefully wrapped around flattened rounds of dough, their tops pleated into folds, crimping them shut. When they're steamed, the pork cooks and the aspic melts into a hot, scalding broth.
By now, you should've mastered eating one without squirting yourself in the eye or dribbling any of that precious nectar onto your shirt. Under their English name of "juicy pork dumplings," they've been a fixture of dim sum and Taiwanese restaurants for years, but only recently have they emerged as the dish of choice at eateries such as Lake Forest's Lees Baozi and the upcoming JA Jiaozi at the Marketplace in Irvine.
This is, of course, all thanks to the unstoppable force called Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese restaurant chain that made xiao long bao a household name. When it opened three years ago with seven-hour-long lines at South Coast Plaza, it changed everything. In crossing over from the Chinese enclave of Arcadia (where it held court for years) to mainstream malls, Din Tai Fung not only introduced the xiao long bao into our culinary lexicon, but it also opened up a whole new spectrum of Chinese food to Americans who grew up knowing of just kung pao and sweet-and-sour proteins. For those dumpling restaurants that have followed in its wake, Din Tai Fung also set the standard to which they will inevitably be compared. Let's face it: When it comes to xiao long baos, there's Din Tai Fung, and then everyone else trying to catch up.
Allan Tea—whose family owns the Capital Seafood empire—must have known this. In preparing to build his long-anticipated xiao long bao-centered concept at Diamond Jamboree in Irvine, he enlisted Kenny Lim, whose family owns Mama Lu's Dumplings in Monterey Park. If you're not yet acquainted, Mama Lu's is considered Din Tai Fung's most formidable rival in LA. But it's not just on Lim's dumpling recipes that Tea has come to rely; he also hired a chef who defected from Din Tai Fung itself.
With his dream team in place, Tea debuted Paper Lantern Dumpling House last month in the tiny squiggle of a space left behind by Guppy Tea House. During its busier moments, the queue to the cashier runs into the tables of those who are already sitting down. But with a brief menu of choices, the line moves fast. Printed on a small wooden board hung above the cashier, the list orbits around five xiao long baos, two pan-fried dumplings and wontons soaked in a sauce made with red chile oil. It advises ordering at least two to three dishes per person—which is true if you intend to eat just the dumplings and only the dumplings. But you shouldn't do that.
There is, for example, an excellent lunch box that has rice topped with a lightly battered fried pork chop and enough sautéed cabbage to constitute a daily serving of vegetables. Another filling dish of boiled noodles and julienned snow peas has the bloated strands covered in a spicy sesame paste as rich as Skippy peanut butter.
I should note that all the food here, with the exception of the xiao long baos, is delivered in flimsy paper to-go boxes. Drinks are self-serve from a soda fountain. On the tables, there are no bottles of soy or vinegar. Instead, there's just a single container of dipping sauce in which the kitchen has combined the two. And when you use it, you pour it not into saucers, but into fast food-style plastic condiment cups too narrow to fit the dumplings. Also, since Paper Lantern's disposable soup spoons have a tendency to warp at even the slightest hint of weight, they don't support your dumplings so much as let them wobble precariously.
If you add it all up, you see Tea's restaurant for what it is: the Honest Trailers to Din Tai Fung's more high-budget feature film. It dispenses with pleasantries and gets down to only the stuff that matters. The lightly pickled cucumber rounds Din Tai Fung arranges in a pyramid are scooped out of a bucket here. Tea can get away with it because nearly every customer who walks in already knows the plot. He doesn't even bother spelling out "xiao long bao" anymore; it's abbreviated as "XLB" on the menu.
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As for how they taste? Served hot, they spurted porky juice, just as I expected. But when the inevitable Din Tai Fung comparisons are made, and because the skins aren't as thin as I'm used to, they ultimately place a close second—still a respectable finish when you're racing against the Usain Bolt of xiao long bao.
Paper Lantern Dumpling House, 2730 Alton Pkwy., Ste. 101, Irvine, (949) 748-8064; www.paperlanterndumpling.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dumplings, $4.75-$10; rice and noodle dishes, $8-$9. No alcohol.