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[Eat It]: Jia Jia Tangbao

Jia Jia Tangbao is the low-hanging fruit of Shanghai street food. Its xiaolongbao are magnetic. They draw big crowds. It's at the top of every Hong Kong tourist's itinerary. Spend fifteen minutes in...
Last updated: 2015-11-09

Jia Jia Tangbao is the low-hanging fruit of Shanghai street food. Its xiaolongbao are magnetic. They draw big crowds. It's at the top of every Hong Kong tourist's itinerary. Spend fifteen minutes in line (and probably much more; at peak times, the wait is over an hour) and you're almost guaranteed to hear the springy, bouncy vowels of Cantonese. Everyone knows Jia Jia Tangbao. They're hardly a secret, but I rarely see them written about in the English food world. I visit even more rarely, but I've found myself there more than a couple of times recently. The Huanghe Lu location is supremely convenient, a three-minute walk from the People's Square metro, and direct opposite a branch of Yang's Fry Dumpling, famous for shengjian bao, the shallow-fried cousin of the soup dumpling. It's a tourist two-fer. Bring a visitor, hit Jia Jia and Yang's, and cross "Shanghai street food" off your list.

Jia Jia has a throwback vibe. The bare-bones shopfront's concession to decor is diner-style tile on one wall. Pepsi comes in thick glass bottles with a straw. A good chunk of the clientele has grandchildren. Most importantly, they stubbornly insist on making and steaming every batch of xiaolongbao to order. A small crew of dextrous ladies roll, wrap, pinch, and twist dumplings in an open kitchen before passing them to the ruddy-cheeked girl juggling the steaming station. After waiting in line for a table, you're waiting again -- 15 minutes or so -- before the waitress, balancing a stack of steamers, calls out the number scribbled on your receipt, and drops off a basket to your table.

Here's a slideshow.

Jia Jia is constantly thrust into the ring with Din Tai Fung. On dumplings alone, I'm not sure they're quite there. DTF is more refined. Their xiaolongbao get 18 pinches, and their service is unfailingly polite; they're also 85 times the price. Jia Jia has a toothless old guy gruffly clearing the table and saying things like "Better than a hamburger, right?". The formica tables are clean but shabby, with a patch down the center, worn to almost exactly the diameter of a steamer basket. Their dumplings get 10 pinches. You can spend 81rmb on an order of pure crab xiaolongbao, but that's the exception. For the most part, it's pocket change. Flavor-wise, and thinness of dumpling-skin wise, they are almost the same as DTF.

Some people have more nuanced opinions.

I keep going for the pork-and-crab xiaolongbao, a 19.5rmb basket. The pure crab are too strong for me; the pure pork are a bit boring. Together, they're fantastic and seem like the seasonal thing to do. (There are shrimp, and shrimp-and-pork. and chicken, if you must.) Julienned ginger in vinegar is compulsory, but not included. Order it, sheng jiangsi, for one rmb. Skip the two soups on the menu -- duck's blood, and seaweed-and-egg, both watery and forgettable.

A couple of practicalities: The menu posted outside shows everything they're potentially capable of. In actuality, what they have is on hanging tiles attached to the wall behind the cashier. There's no English menu, (some of the cashiers speak a little) but you can sort of order by looking at the prices (pork, 7.5rmb; shrimp-pork, 9rmb; chicken-pork, the second 9rmb; egg yolk-pork, 12rmb; crab-pork, 19.5rmb; chicken, the second 12rmb; shrimp, the third 12rmb; crab, 81rmb). Jia Jia opens at 6.30am. There's not much line until about 10.30 or 11am, and then it grows, and grows, and grows. Going on the early side is recommended. There's a window after the lunch crowd, but Jia Jia's closing hours are arbitrary. Officially, it's 7pm, but they're known to shut things down earlier than that.

Jia Jia Tangbao, 90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu.

More info, map, and telephone number here.