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Monday, January 14, 2008

Dim Sum Garden

We've been frustrated by the lack of good Shanghainese Xiao Long Bao, (often called "Soup Dumplings") here in Philly. They're pretty rare in general, and the few versions we've found weren't very good. Until now! An unassuming little restaurant on 11th street caught our attention a few weeks ago when a friend noticed them on the menu. A few advance scouts checked it out and reported that those dumplings were indeed very good, and authentic, so we got a gang together to do a more thorough survey. (We're working on a cool name, "The Pork and Chive Dumpling Gang" is a little ungainly... )

[EDITED TO ADD: I was reminded that the menu does not refer to Xiao Long Bao as "Soup Dumplings" and the staff will tell you that these are not soup dumplings. They use the term "steamed buns." The first two items on the menu, the "Shanghai Steamed Buns" and the "Steamed Buns with Crab Meat" are Xiao Long Bao. Number 3, the "Vegetable Steamed Buns" are not Xiao Long Bao, they are large, non-soupy, buns with a more fluffy, doughy wrapper, like the more conventional Cantonese dim sum steamed "bun." The first two photos in this post are of item #2 on the menu "steamed Buns with Crab Meat."]

We're happy to report that the Xiao Long Bao are indeed excellent, with thin, delicate wrappers (careful getting them out of the steamer!) and delicious fillings of pork, or pork and crab, surrounded by an intense broth. They're a little tricky to eat - one needs to carefully lift a dumpling onto a soup spoon, then carefully bite the very top of that extending collar off, and, presuming the soup is not still too hot, slurp up some of the delicious broth. You may then want to drizzle some black vinegar onto the dumpling and pop the whole thing in your mouth. Is it worth the trouble, and the hot-broth burn risk? Yes it is.

On the specials board was Shaou Mei which we correctly assumed was an alternate spelling of "Shu Mai."
These were not filled with soup, rather with pork and mushrooms, and were quite good as well, if not quite as exciting!

The "Vegetable Steamed Buns" (number three on the menu) were pretty thrilling, because they were about the size of a baseball, filled with green vegetable, mushrooms and, according to our waiter, a "secret ingredient."

We're not sure what the secret ingredient in the filling is, but we do know another secret: that their homemade sauce for these buns makes a huge difference. A little drizzle of that soy-based sauce really perked them right up.

We decided that we needed some more soup dumplings, when suddenly, TRAGEDY!I think a few of us might have actually wept a bit when we accidentally lost control of a steamer full of XLB. Thankfully, nobody was injured by a flying hot soup grenade, and we continued on, shaken, but not deterred.

Tricolor Salad had pickled vegetables and pressed tofu, and give a light and tangy and crunchy contrast to all those dumplings.

Seaweed Salad offered a similar bright crunch.

Smoked Fish, on the other hand, brought a darker, muskier note. It was indeed smoky, funky, salty, and a little sweet too. It's intense stuff, but very good if you like strongly-flavored fish.

Meatballs were smaller than the classic "Lion's Head" style, but were otherwise very similar: tender meatballs in a thich, slightly sweet sauce. Delicious.

Pork Chop Rice doesn't look too thrilling, but it's amazingly tasty. The meat itself is surprisingly tender and moist, and the rice has soaked up some mysterious flavors.

Chili Pork and Cabbage, Noodles with Soup brought hand-drawn noodles in a good broth, studded with pork, cabbage and pickled vegetables.

Hand-Drawn Noodles with Roast Duck. I think Iliked the texture of these noodles even better than in the soup, and the duck gave them a great flavor.

There are many more soups and noodle platters, as well as things served on rice, so "Dim Sum Garden" is not an especially apt name for this place: they have much more than just Dim Sum items, and not an especially wide variety of dumplings and other small dim sum classics. Even so, it's worth coming here for the Xiao Long Bao alone, as well as the other dumplings and buns. But don't miss the noodles or rice platters, this is more of a casual Shanghainese restaurant than merely a dumpling shop.

It's pretty small, with austere decor, and in an unlikely location, but the food is excellent, the staff is super-friendly, and the tableware is surprisingly elegant. Prices are very affordable, we recently gorged ourselves on less than $15 per person. We're looking forward to checking out the rest of the menu as soon as possible. Then starting again at the beginning.

Dim Sum Garden
59 North 11th Street (between Filbert and Arch)

read more in Lari Robling's article in the Daily News>>


  1. One of the things I really like about DSG is their small menu- unlike so many Chinese restaurants with telephone-book-sized menus, you KNOW that everything on it is going to be pretty good.

  2. Anonymous10:14 AM

    Which ones did you like better -- pork and crab or plain pork?

    Also, how were those scallion pancakes? I know Pedro wasn't enamored of them, but is that universally true?

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  4. Well... the plain pork ones ended up upside-down on the table, so I'm not sure! I was thinking that we were going to get a new batch, but it as later in the meal and we were pretty stuffed, so no problem, we'll go back and do a side-by-side tasting. When I've had these at other places, I always preferred the plain pork, but I did really quite like the Pork+Crab here. I'm looking forward to more tests!

    So here's a question: do we know whether the "crab" component is crabmeat, crab roe, or both?

    The Scallion pancakes were not especially good, a little floppy.

    The scallion pancakes that we got at Empress Garden were fantastic, I thought. We might have to get back there...

  5. Anonymous11:43 AM

    Being a big fan of xiao long bao, I have eaten several times at Dim Sum Garden to satisfy that craving. The soup dumplings are tasty, with a good amount of intensely flavorful liquid (don't loose it when picking up the dumplings and don't burn yourself!) and a satisfying pork filling (the crab version reveals a subtle hint of oceanic flavor). I like the noodles there - when not overcooked. I have not paid sufficient attention to the specials on the board, thanks for pointing out that one can order additional items from there.
    Friendly folks who aim to please - I kind of like the over-lit space with its urban views.

  6. Ha! "over-lit" is right, next time I might wear sunglasses... But hey, at least there is plenty of light for photography, even if it is a little flat.

    And I know what you mean, it's a very weird setting for a restaurant, but there's a perverse appeal to the gritty urban vibe, a lot of folks wandering in with luggage, clearly right off the bus from somewhere. I think I prefer this current vibe to an over-serious swanky joint with tablecloths. I'm just afraid that they won't be able to handle the crowds in this space if they get the attention they deserve.

  7. Thanks for the tip...we probably wouldn't have given this place a second look without your review. We went on Friday night. One dish we especially liked was egg and tomato on rice. So simple, yet so satisfying! While we're still working on our soup dumpling techniques (kind of interesting how each of us approached the dumpling differently), we really enjoyed the #3 vegetable dumplings. It is a good place to add to the Chinatown list!

  8. Thanks back at you for the tip, we'll have to try that egg and tomato on rice! Glad you liked the place.