Who has the best dumplings in Shanghai?
As you might know, dumplings, especially soup dumplings (xiao long bao), are a Shanghai specialty.
Bryan and I visited Shanghai for the first time this past September. Naturally, we eagerly sought out the best dumpling places in the city.
I soon found out that this is a highly contested issue (at least on English language forums), with the die hard Din Tai Fung fans on one side and loyal Jia Jia Tang Bao supporters on the other side.
Jia Jia Tang Bao fans usually deride Din Tai Fung for its obscenely priced dumplings (especially by China standards) and chi chi westernized atmosphere. Din Tai Fung fans maintain that the dumplings at Din Tai Fung are more sophisticated, better tasting, and overall higher quality.
Anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile will know that I am a HUGE fan of Din Tai Fung, a dumpling shop that originated from Taiwan. When I found out that Jia Jia Tang Bao was only a 10 minute walk from my hotel room, I knew I had to check it out.
Jia Jia Tang Bao is truly your classic hole-in-the-wall (not-so-hidden) gem. It’s small, crowded, and packed with people slurping down piping hot soup dumplings. The décor is spartan, with decades-old formica tables and simple metal chairs.
A middle-aged lady, probably the owner, stands at a tiny counter at the front of the restaurant taking orders. You basically line up outside the restaurant and wait for a spot at the ever-popular place.
The menu is simple, posted on tiny red plastic placards on the wall. If you ask for an English menu, you'll be handed a tattered notebook with the menu items hand-written in ball-point pen.
Thankfully at 8AM there is no wait for a table. The counter lady immediately shuttles us to a table of four already occupied by two other people. I glance briefly at the couple across from us, not sure whether to exchange pleasantries or just to ignore them.
Luckily, a table for two opens up before we receive our food, and she motions for us to move again.
We order two “steamer baskets” of xiao long baos (soup dumplings): regular pork (9 RM / $1.36 USD) and pork & crab (22.5 RMB / $3.40 USD). Because they make your dumplings to order, you have to wait about 10-15 minutes before you get your food.
Meanwhile, you can marvel at the dumpling making action, visible right up front. Four young ladies work in concert, churning out xiao long baos at expert speeds. This fascinating operation involves a carefully orchestrated flow of moving parts: one woman rolls out perfectly formed skins while another painstakingly wraps them, each dumpling receiving its 10 or so characteristic folds.
If the dumpling dough begins running out, another woman starts kneading more dough and cutting out more dough chunks. Meanwhile, people are running back and forth between the steamers and the pile of ever growing dumplings. Throughout, the ladies chat and laugh with each other, making the job actually look fun.
Before we knew it, our steaming dumplings arrived straight from the kitchen. Though you may question the cleanliness of the place, we were pleased to see our tiny sauce plates inside the steamer as well, nicely sanitized from the super hot steam.
And then, the anticipated first bite.
People were not kidding when they raved about this place! These dumplings are truly a piece of art. The skins are nice and thin, yet strong enough to hold the soup in place. We easily picked up the dumplings with our chopsticks without breaking a single one. I also loved the smaller size, something that was typical throughout Shanghai. I don't know why the ones on the US are so big and, more often than not, wrapped with a skin that is way to thick AND fragile at the same time.
I absolutely loved the flavor of the pork dumplings. I actually liked them better than the ones at Din Tai Fung, which cost 4-5 (?) times as much. The pork and crab dumplings exploded with a deliciously strong crab flavor. We both agreed that these were better than the more subtle-flavored crab dumplings at Din Tai Fung Shanghai, though they did not beat our ethereal crab dumpling experience at Din Tai Fung Beijing (yes, we went to both multiple times – more on those to come!).
We loved Jia Jia Tang Bao so much, we ended up walking there for breakfast every morning for the rest of our trip. Where else can you have such a transcendent dumpling experience for less than $5 USD?
So wait, how does it compare to Din Tai Fung?
In some ways, it’s so hard to do a true head to head comparison of these two restaurants because they are so different on so many levels.
When it comes to your pure basic pork flavored xiao long bao, I prefer the flavor of the ones at Jia Jia Tang Bao. As for crab, we had different experiences at the different Din Tai Fungs, so that one is harder to judge. The Jia Jia Tang Bao ones are excellent and sit somewhere between the Beijing ones and the Shanghai ones (more on that later). As for pure dumpling construction skills, Din Tai Fung hands down makes a prettier and more sophisticated dumpling, complete with all those perfect folds in their full glory.
Finally, Din Tai Fung has a much more beautiful ambiance, diverse menu, and full service. Of course, it also costs much much more.
It’s really hard to compare the two head to head. I love the variety of dishes at Din Tai Fung, and some of their more exotic xiao long bao flavors are out of this world (more on THAT later too!).
However, I would never pass up an opportunity to stop by Jia Jai Tang Bao for that real, authentic street experience. You just can’t beat that sometimes.
Jia Jia Tang Bao is located on Huang He street (黄河路) right near People Square (which is where our hotel was located). It is a short walk from the People’s Square subway stop.
Come early. They only make a certain amount per day and will close once they sell out of everything. They have been known to run out as early as 1PM on really good days, though typically they are open until late afternoon/early evening.
As a plus, you can visit Yang’s Fry Dumpling (best shen jian bao I’ve ever had), which is conveniently right across the street.
Jia Jia Tang Bao
90 Huanghe Lu
This is part 7 of the China Series detailing my recent trip to Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai.
Other posts in this series:
part 1: Wander the Streets of Beijing
part 2: Xian'r Lao Man (Dumplings)
part 3: Made in China (Peking Duck)
part 4: Noodle Bar
part 5: Bao Yuan Dumpling
part 6: Da Dong (Peking Duck)
China: Lost in Translation
Happy Birthday Bryan: an Ode to Noodles and Ducks
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