Xiaolongbao catch a lot of praise in the discourse of Shanghai’s great street foods. But where is the love for their burlier cousins, the shengjian bao? Dong Tai Xiang has some of Shanghai’s greatest foods down to an art: the shengjian bao, scallion oil noodles and sesame paste wontons.
First and foremost, Dong Tai Xiang’s shengjian bao, their bread and butter signature offering. What makes theirs a cut above the rest is not quantity of soup or quality of meat filling, but the texture of the dough, which is a finely tuned contrast between bready fluffiness and potsticker chew; crunchy pan-fried bottom and soft, sesame-flecked top.
This happy halfway sits squarely between the two warring schools of shengjian that pit unleavened against leavened dough – a story that has been chronicled in great detail elsewhere on SmartShanghai.
Where the gnarled, soup-less leavened buns exemplified by Da Hu Chun are the Aunt Patty and Selmas of the shengjian genus, and the plumped up, thin-skinned, unleavened shengjian of Xiao Yang perhaps best represented by Pamela Anderson, Dong Tai Xiang’s delicately puffy, nicely-proportioned offerings are like wholesome high school sweethearts. The Marge Simpsons, if you will.
This coveted texture is achieved via a complicated procedure that holds the dough in a semi-leavened state, ultimately making for a dumpling that satisfies supporters in both camps. Encased within is a filling of either pork, or pork and shrimp, supported by a scalding hot splash of pork broth.
The other underlying key to Dong Tai Xiang’s shengjian success is their high turnover.
Good shengjian beget more good shengjian, since the cooks here churn out dumplings literally all day and night to a constant stream of customers. There is often a 15-minute wait for each batch to finish cooking. No shade to the average shengjian vendor you pass on the sidewalk, but by early afternoon there’s a high chance of these having sat in an oily pan for 30 minutes waiting for someone to buy the last stragglers. Lukewarm shengjian are still delicious of course, but not as delicious as still-steaming fresh ones.
Dong Tai Xiang may be known for their shengjian, but there are many other notable items on their menu that deserve sampling. The most obvious of these are kaiyang scallion oil noodles (开洋葱油拌面).
A staple at most Shanghainese restaurants and snack shops, scallion oil noodles are a comfort food classic that sees boiled wheat noodles drizzled in a sweet soy sauce and oil infused with fried scallions.
Most places serve scallion oil noodles with a few perfunctory whispers of the crispy scallions on top, but Dong Tai Xiang goes two steps further and adds not only teeny dried sea shrimps (kaiyang), but also a huge heaping handful of scallions. Once mixed in, they contribute toothsome texture and unbridled onion-y flavor that makes other examples of the dish seem by comparison rather feckless.
With both dumplings and noodles taken care of, it would be easy to overlook wontons. But overlook you should not, since the giant boiled wontons (麻酱大馄饨) of Dong Tai Xiang, stuffed with pork and chopped shepherds purse and smothered in sesame paste, are good enough to order by themselves. All the more so after a drizzling of chili oil and black vinegar.
The most popular branch of the chain, and the only one worth visiting, sits on the intersection between Dagu and Chongqing Bei Lu and is a not totally horrible place to eat a meal in. There’s no sparkly Din Tai Fung cleanliness or frills of décor. But when an average spend here comes in at a princely 26rmb per head, do you really care?
With their functional dining booths, non-fluorescent lighting, English menus and sterilized self-service chopstick counter, a fair assessment would be to say they give roughly half a shit. And maybe these happy compromises are what have made Dong Tai Xiang into a paradigm of greatness, a Goldilocks zone of large-scale efficiency and mom-and-pop street food authenticity.
See all of Dong Tai Xiang's locations here.