Soup dumplings are a reporter’s first meal in Las Vegas

When I’m in a new city, I strive for extravagance.

Some people, wherever they go, catch nibbling on delicious chicken wings. Others seek the whipped bliss of biscuits and gravy. But I’m always on the lookout for a Chinese restaurant that serves xiao long bao (shao long bao), steamed dumplings whose twisted tops are gnawed off to sip the rich, delicious broth inside.

The other evening, for my first dinner out as a newcomer to Las Vegas, I joined an old friend at Xiao Long Dumplings, the venue that opened last September in the Chinatown Plaza on Spring Mountain Road. My friend visits Vegas frequently for work, and suggests Xiao Long Dumplings because it comes highly recommended (and she knows I’m a Xiao Long Bao demon).

Touch a home-made dumpling steamer. I flip the first dumplings, piercing their skin with a food stick (and releasing the liquid charge) before I can push them into the soup spoon. The second time, success: the package has settled, I gnaw a hole, I drink the soup, then I finish the remaining dumplings and stuffing with ground pork.

Before I knew it, the dumplings for the house and the pot of dumplings with shrimp and steamed pork were sent out. Across the restaurant, a giant dumpling mascot (Chief Bao) winks exaggeratedly at diners while serving a steamer of Xiao Long Bao.

you know what? I’ll take another one.

(Wes Rand)

International bites

Xiao long bao, which are often called soup dumplings, is all about balance.

The crust should be sturdy enough to hold the contents but thin enough to be translucent (and eaten in one bite). When they are lifted, the dumplings should hang down, like bellies, but never pop and spill the soup. This broth is made when the gelatin of the meat in the filling is dissolved during steaming.

I made my way through Nanxiang Mantou Dian, the famous xiao Long bao supplier in City God Complex in Shanghai. I’ve done the same across Asia at Din Tai Fung, the pancake and noodle chain that opened a location in Aria in October 2020.

Some of the best xiao long bao I’ve had in the US have been at Yank Sing, a popular dim sum destination in San Francisco, and at a Chinese restaurant in Portland, Oregon, in the Laurelhurst section, a neighborhood that also serves as a shelter magazine.

Xiao Long Bao at my first dinner in Vegas cured themselves admirably, with thin skins, plenty of hot broth, well seasoned filling and just the right size for a single bite. I’m thinking of ordering Chinese black vinegar to dip my dumplings (cut the richness), but nah: I’m too busy to eat and can’t wait.

dumplings then, now, forever

I grew up in Hawaii, where Asian dumplings and other Asian foods are part of the usual daily fare. My family loves to tell my story, as a little kid, always reaching out for a hand full of Hawaiian (I’m half Hawaiian) whenever the pot makers passed by in a restaurant. (Fact: My fist will extend when any food comes in.)

Xiao long dumplings are a newly acquired taste, developed by experiencing them wherever I live or travel. I’m fond of label labels, using a recipe I modified years ago from Chef Martin Jan, but soup dumplings belong in this family of dishes (also belong pho, Peking duck, and macarons) that don’t pay off for the cost, technique, and time required to prepare at home. It is better to leave them to the professionals.

I will remember

Xiao Long dumplings do well elsewhere on the list.

There are crunchy green beans sautéed in XO sauce and thick slabs of eggplant dipped in garlic, soybeans, cornstarch, and a dash of sugar.

Vegetable fried rice is light but big and has a mild flavor. Inspired by the psychedelic floral heat of Sichuan cooking, Spicy Chili Oil Noodles feature a dash of wheat noodles, dollops of chili paste, refrigerated slivers of cucumber, and a lagoon of chili oil beneath those coats as you toss.

All great dishes, but for me, xiao long bao provides the reason for a return visit. Long after eating at dozens of other Chinese restaurants in Las Vegas, I will remember this night and this Xiao Long Bao.

You never forget your first pancakes.

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