If you think you have had good soup dumplings, but you have never been to China* nor ever visited Shanghai Cafe, then you have no idea what you are talking about. I’m sorry. It’s just true.
The first time I went, Jonny took me, and I was totally overwhelmed. It’s a get in, hope to sit down, sit down, eat, pay, get out atmosphere. There are crazy-colored florescent bulbs running in designs on the ceiling. Most of the staff are women who speak at high volume in Cantonese, yelling at other staff members or even customers.
I had never tried bubble tea and I knew that I hated tapioca pudding so I didn’t dare partake in an iced tea that had tapioca pearls inside (only later did my sister-in-law Jane describe it as having gummi bears in your drink, and then I tried it AND loved it.).
I also had never before eaten a soup dumpling. When I heard him say “we are going out for soup dumplings” I had envisioned a big bowl of Chinese style broth with German spaetzle-like chunks inside.
I had no idea that you would get perfect looking, curlicue on top, little dumplings steamed and served to you in a bamboo tray that actually had soup INSIDE of the dumpling itself!!! Whaaaaaaaaaat???
Now that I’m an old pro, I scoff at those who don’t know what a “soup dumpling” is (aka tiny steamed buns with pork). I can expertly dip my dumpling into the soy ginger sauce with chopsticks, drop it into the soup spoon, dress it with a little red chili paste and then bite - just a bit - then slurp soup out, then actually eat the dumpling.
The soup dumplings are always a point of wonder to newbies. How do they get that soup in there?? The answer is actually very simple: when they are arranging the dumpling and wrapping it with that perfect twist on top, they add some pork broth gelatin inside along with the pork meat. When the buns are being steamed the gelatin turns to soup. That’s why it is almost impossible to order these for delivery and still have a good quality dumpling… they need to be eaten freshly steamed otherwise that soup component sort of hardens up again when the temperature drops.
On top of the two orders of tiny steamed buns we add on an order of vegetable dumplings (you know - to keep it healthy). We also order wonton Szechuan style. The wontons are dumplings with no soup inside. They have pork and leeks with the dough wrapper around it served with a spicy peanut-buttery sauce on top. Add a little Chinese hot chili paste and you have yourself a real treat.
Not to make broad generalizations, and not to name names, but I have had Asian friends scoff right back at me when they find out that we only go to this place to make a meal out of dumplings. Normally dumplings would be just an appetizer or maybe part of a larger dim sum meal - never the entire meal. And do you know what? I do not care. I am going to keep going to Shanghai Cafe for the dumplings and bubble tea and eat til I have had my fill! Or until the slightly angry waitresses kick us out.