You can get soup dumplings everywhere, but their quality varies greatly, and it can be hard to know whether the one on your block is going to be good or not. Fortunately, the ones on my block are great. These are the crown jewels of Shanghai and Jiangsu cuisine, and Fa Hua Tang Bao on Fahuazhen Lu is the spot to get your fix at a seriously great price if you’re in and around Changning.
This is very much a no-frills, neighborhood joint, but it’s very clean and consistent. It’s also a great place to try Shanghai’s greatest culinary invention outside of more refined spots like the oft-cited Din Tai Fung.
Dumplings and soup are the focus of the very small menu, which is helpfully plastered on the walls, including pictures and English names. Don’t think too hard about it though, because there’s no real need to stray away from two core items. Look around and you’ll see groups of people ordering either simple pork xiao long bao or steaming bowls of laoya fensi tang (literally ‘Old Duck Sweet Potato Noodle Soup, so named because it’s thought that old birds create the most nourishing soup).
First the xiao long bao, an absolute steal at RMB 10 for 1 long (eight dumplings, labelled “Meat Soup” on the menu). These are served up, to my mind, exactly how they should be. The skins are thin and delicate, and the broth inside truly warming and rich without feeling too greasy or fatty, an issue that you’ll find at other cheaper xiao long bao spots. (Also, the chili here is always fresh and packs a real punch, something to watch out for at any place where dumpling dipping is integral to enjoyment). Nibble a hole, slurp out some soup, dip in chili and vinegar and sigh. This right here is Shanghainese comfort food that lets you know, soothingly, that all is right with the world.
There are other varieties, too. A meat and shepard’s purse variety (RMB 15, “Cooking Soup” on the menu), which I’m partial to for the sake of variety, is decent but not as good as the meat ones. They’re less soupy and therefore less satisfying. Crab and pork xiao long (RMB 30) aren’t crabby enough to merit the increased price tag. There is also an advertised “Homemade Soup” version for a comparatively eye-popping RMB 50 which I am yet to sample and perhaps never will; I simply can’t imagine them being five times better than the exceptional RMB 10 treats that keep me coming back.
Basically, stick with the RMB 10 “Meat Soup” xiao long bao. They’re cheap and absolutely great.
Now, to the second item that you’ll see on pretty much every table. Listed as “Duck Vermicelli Soup” in English, the laoya fensi tang (RMB 15) is a great accompaniment to a round of dumplings. It’s a staple in this part of the country, and it definitely packs a bit of that undefinable “home-cooking” feel. It might, however, be more of an acquired taste given the fact that along with cilantro, chewy fried tofu and glass noodles, the principle ingredients are duck stomach and duck blood. Yum. The stomach actually has a texture not too dissimilar to normal flesh. The iron notes and firm-jello texture of the duck blood cubes might be less appealing but might not be too unfamiliar to anyone that is partial to, say, blood sausage.
There’s a reason that everyone in here is eating it. It tastes good, if you can get used to the flavors and textures. If not, you’re totally fine to simply order a bowl and request that no duck parts are included. It’s still a satisfying way to feel a bit fuller than you’ll feel if you just eat dumplings, particularly in the winter months. If you are going to be adventurous, adding chili and a little vinegar goes a long way toward masking some of the duckier offal aromas.
The final thing I’ve failed to mention are the shao mai, small chewy rice dumplings that usually contain a small chunk of dry pork (RMB 10, labelled “Three small dumplings”). They’re fine. Nothing stellar but a decent filler if you don’t feel like noodles / soup.
The place can be tricky to find the first time you go. In the second half of 2017 all of the store fronts on Fahuazhen Lu were boarded up, meaning that you have to find alternative ways to enter them, usually via the entrance of whatever compound their building is in. Fa Hua Tang Bao can be reached by the main door of a residential building - fortunately, the kitchen has a street-facing window, so you should be able to spot it.
It’s a fun atmosphere. Small, cramped and often loud with brusque service. When I visit on weekend mornings the crowd always seems to be a mixture of young mums and dads with their children, old neighborhood locals and kids that could have stumbled right out of Dada a couple of blocks over. Good vibes. And seriously good dumplings.
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