There are a lot of different kinds of dumplings -- so many, in fact, that it's easy to get confused between pork buns and pork potstickers, steamed or baked, Xiao Long Bao or Sheng Jian Bao. This might be why many San Francisco dumpling places have a back-up ordering method of pictures and pointing for their non-Chinese-speaking clientele. It was a method I admit I resorted to more than once on this dumpling quest.
There are those who can debate for hours the merits of various dumpling locations, but for those of us less well-versed, a quick tutorial: Dim Sum refers to a variety of dishes, and is more about the style and time of the meal. Typically, the Cantonese-style small dishes are served as snacks and are accompanied by tea. Dumplings are often one of those dishes. (Obviously, dumplings are not unique to any one country and different types of dumplings can be found around the world.) Chinese dumplings are made of a thin wrapper filled with meat and/or vegetables and then steamed. They also can come in soup broth. Potstickers are pan-fried versions. Xiao long bao are soup dumplings with Shanghainese origins, whose filling melts as they cook, making the broth gush out as you bite into them. There are also buns, made with fluffy rolls and steamed or baked. The most popular buns are usually filled with barbecued pork. And, yes, there is a quite bit of a blending of traditions, cultures, and styles in the variations we have here in the Bay Area.
If you are a connoisseur, then the differences in regional techniques and ingredients will be something worth testing carefully at the many dumpling places in the city. If you just want a cheap and delicious meal, then here are some of the best places to start.
Shanghai Dumpling King
Shanghai Dumpling King has two locations now, though the one in the Outer Richmond is the original. Perhaps, from such an institution you'd expect frills and a larger space, but Shanghai Dumpling King is fairly small and unadorned, with one tiny room by the kitchen and a larger area with about 10 tables. The one large group table was full when I arrived. Many locals simply order take-out. And be warned: it's cash only.
The Dumpling King may be best known for its xiao long bao and its Shanghai-style wontons. The xiao long bao soup dumplings come ten to a basket and are known for being creamy once you bite in. I, however, ordered the wonton soup with dumplings.
The broth was thin and very, very hot. But once I stopped accidentally burning my mouth, the dumplings were delicious. They had a thin wrapper and chives packed in around the meat.
I know everyone raves about the soup dumplings, but my weakness here was the pan-fried pork dumplings, which I could have kept eating long after it was no longer a good idea. They're fried on one side, slightly sweet, and drenched in oil. You could easily fill up on the many different kinds of dumplings, but this small spot actually has a large menu with other types of dishes. Try the noodles or green beans too. Since everything is relatively cheap, it's easy to order more than a few things and take home leftovers, or split with friends.
Yank Sing is the granddaddy of dim sum spots in the city, with two locations in downtown. It's generally considered one of the classic restaurants of San Francisco and won a James Beard Award in 2009. Started in Chinatown in 1958, it moved to the financial district in 1974 and the Rincon Center location opened 15 years ago. That's the larger of the two spots and it's added a "to-go" storefront for all workers looking for a quick, tasty lunch. On the weekends, the restaurant takes over the atrium of the food court as well and serves nearly 500 people at a time.
If you'd rather sit down than get to-go, it's probably a good idea to make reservations online, since the large dining room is busy and full nearly every day. For a lunch mid-week, though, I easily got a reservation for 12:30 p.m. And service is so quick and efficient, even if you don't have a reservation, they'll likely fit you in and have food on your plate before too long.
There is a printed menu at Yank Sing, and you can certainly (obviously) order from it. But if you really want the full experience, just pick from the carts that come around. Each has an array of wooden baskets and you can simply point to what looks best. This is also an easy way to rack up a large bill without noticing.
I know veggie dumplings are not necessarily what most people think of as the standard dumpling, but they were probably my favorite from all the places and things I tried. The veggie dumplings had a interesting mix of cabbage, nuts, and bamboo shoots.
While it's hard to always tell what's going to come by on the next cart, the Yank Sing pork bun is a must-try. The bun is light and fluffy with the requisite barbecue pork on the inside slightly sweet. Get some tea to go with the meal.
The only downside is the wooden baskets tend to come with just a few dumplings or buns in them, which likely adds to Yank Sing's reputation for being more expensive than dim sum should be. There is also some criticism out there that it's too Americanized in its presentation and options. That may be true, but it's also delicious.
Right in the heart of Chinatown, Great Eastern is where President Obama opted to stop in 2012 to pick up a large to-go order while he was in town. The place is basically one very large and bustling dining room, with another room downstairs. Suited waiters in green jackets and linen tablecloths make the whole experience feel rather formal, despite the fact that it's typically loud and crowded.
I'll be honest: I wasn't totally sure what I was ordering. Fortunately, while the menu has English translations of all its items, it also has pictures, making it easy to point at what looks good. And it all looks good.
The steamed Shanghai dumplings arrived in their requisite wooden basket. As soon as I bit in, the wrapper sort of fell apart and juice dribbled out. Inside was a ball of pork and spices. I couldn't quite figure out how to eat them in two bites because the dough would stick to its wrapper and tear while I tried to bite in. I ended up just popping the whole thing in my mouth. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this technique.
Admittedly, I had these pork buns just before trekking over to Yank Sing' for their version, and Yank Sing's were probably better, but Great Eastern's pork buns are also excellent. They're sweet, dense, and stuffed with barbecue pork filling. The filling is slightly less sweet than Yank Sing's and the buns are a little heavier.
The dumpling soup was possibly my least favorite dish. With one giant dumpling ball of chicken and cabbage and spices, in a cup of steaming hot broth, you have to break apart the ball to eat it. It's tasty, but the broth and meat could use more flavor.
Technically, the restaurant is cash only for orders under $20, but the staff let me slip by with my $19 check. And they were happy to answer any questions I had or make suggestions about what to order. There is a full menu of entrees and noodles too, but dim sum is only served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dumpling Kitchen and Kingdom of Dumpling are just two blocks apart from each other on Taraval Street. Both look like holes in the wall from the outside, but both have some of the best dumplings in the city on the inside.
Dumpling Kitchen sits about 30-40 people at its simple tables in one medium-sized room. Service is quick and without frills.
We ordered two wooden baskets: the veggie dumplings and the pork and cabbage. Both are prepared in the classic steamed style before being brought to your table. The pork dumplings are mixed with Napa cabbage, and the cabbage adds a fresh crispness to the balls of meat. The dough is slightly chewy and tears away, though it gets rubbery if you wait too long and they cool.
The veggie dumplings are filled with a mix of vegetables -- carrots and peas and cabbage -- and spices. There's also a range of appetizers, which many locals swear by for a full meal.
Kingdom of Dumpling
Kingdom of Dumpling has been around longer than its down-the-street neighbor. It's a tiny bit more upscale and is often more crowded -- though it's also smaller with just about eight table. There's also a wholesale location a few blocks away if you want to place large orders (or if you want to see how it all gets made). You can also buy frozen bags of dumplings at the wholesale location for cooking at home.
We decided to get our vegetables and ordered the garlic green beans to start. They were the surprise of the night: crisp and excellently flavored. After eating all the green beans, I wiped up the leftover garlic sauce with potstickers for a tasty combination.
Both Dumpling Kitchen and Kingdom of Dumpling are well-regarded for their xiao long bao, but they also have long menus with a variety of dumplings. The pork potstickers are a staple, wrapped in a crescent shape and pan-fried on one side. They tasted like what you'd expect potstickers to taste like. Don't overdo it with the vinegar sauce, unless you're prepared for the bite, but a little livens them up and keeps the pork moist.
We also ordered the chicken and spinach dumplings. While a different style than Dumpling Kitchen's pork and cabbage dumplings, the end result was very similar. Both Sunset neighborhood spots take credit cards and you can get a full meal for two at a very reasonable price.
Kingdom of Dumpling
1713 Taraval St. [map]
San Francisco, CA 94116
Ph: (415) 665-6617
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30am-3:30pm, 5pm-9:30pm; Fri, 11:30am-3:30pm, 5pm-10pm; Sat, 11:30am-10pm; Sun, 11:30am-9:30pm