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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sakura - More Soup Dumplings in Chinatown

It has somehow become my role in the Philadelphia dining community to shoot-up a signal flare whenever Xiao Long Bao are spotted in the area. I'm pleased to say that I can report another spot that offers the delicate "juicy buns" and not only that - they just might be the best yet.

The high quality of these dumplings shouldn't come as a surprise: the new-ish restaurant Sakura, at the corner of 11th and Race in Chinatown, is run by former partners in Dim Sum Garden, where the local mania for Xiao Long Bao was stoked. Although there were several dishes from Shanghai on Sakura's opening menu, the XLB are more recent additions, announced on a hand-writen sign on the door. We're told a new menu is imminent, featuring even more regional Chinese specialties, and these will surely be on it, but don't look for "Soup Dumplings." Like at Dim Sum Garden, they're referred-to as "Steamed Juicy Buns."

There are three varieties: one with pork, one with pork and crab, and one with shrimp and pork. We've sampled the plain pork, and the pork and crab, and they're really outstanding (we slightly prefer the plain pork.) The wrappers are paper-thin, but display significantly better structural integrity than those at Dim Sum Garden. We haven't had a single one rupture or tear, a frequent problem at Dim Sum Garden. They might be a little smaller than the ones at Dim Sum Garden, but larger than Zhi Wei Guan's, and come 6 to an order (as opposed to 8 at DSG and ZWG) but these seem in perfect balance. The skins are tender, yet strong, holding in just the right amount of broth. That soup inside is less salty than many other versions, but comes into perfect balance with a few drips of the gingery sauce that accompanies.

It's pretty amazing: not long ago, Phiadelphians would bemoan the lack of XLB in local restaurants, and now we have three places that serve good ones.

The even better news about Sakura is that there's much more worth exploring on their menu. Of particular note is their Scallion Pancake, which threatens to overshadow the Xiao Long Bao as a seductive snack. This version is airy and flaky, not the crunchy puck we've gotten used to at other restaurants. They're still a little oily, but seem more buttery than greasy. There are two versions, regular and onion, neither of which tastes very much like scallions, but they're so good that it's easy to not care.

There are lots more interesting things on the menu, along with some of the same-old Chinatown standards, it will be interesting to see if the new menu tilts more strongly toward the traditional Chinese styles. Although they offer several spicy dishes typical of Sichuan, I think the kitchen is stronger in the realm of the foods from Shanghai.

That said, the Double-Cooked Pork was tasty, if not especially spicy. Tender slices of pork belly were stir-fried with cabbage and chile sauce, which gave a bold flavor, but not a lot of heat, and none of the tingly sensation that comes from Sichuan Peppercorns.

The spicy dishes we got on an earlier visit were good, but they're not going to challenge the versions you can find a few blocks away at Four Rivers, or Szechuan Tasty House, or out in the 'burbs at Han Dynasty.

You'll have better luck here with the Shanghainese dishes, like the Braised Pork Shoulder, the Lions Head, or some of the dishes with Rice Cake.

We tried the Fried Rice Cake with beef. It's mild, but the chewy texture of the noodle-like discs of rice cake along with a little crunch from cabbage an onion make this a nice subtle comforting dish.

I hope to see more homey dishes from Shangahi and beyond on the new menu. I'll certainly be checking in with them soon!

In the meantime, there's no reason at all for you to delay heading over there for Steamed Juicy Buns and Scallion pancakes.

1038 Race Street (on the corner of 11th Street)

earlier post about Sakura here>>


  1. Anonymous3:43 PM

    For those of us who are intrigued by these steamed juicy buns, how does one eat them exactly? My imagination has an option of soup spilling all over the place, or an extra big one bite mouthful, neither of which seems right.

  2. It does indeed involve a little skill... The classic technique is to pick them up out of the steamer with a pair of chopsticks gently gripping the little neck-like top. At the same time you're lifting them out, get a Chinese soup spoon underneath to support the main part of the bun, and to catch any fluids in case there's any leaking. With the bun sitting in the soup spoon, grab that top part of the dough with your chopsticks, and nibble off a bit of dough, creating a vent in the top. If they've JUST come out of the kitchen, you might want to let some steam escape. If it doesn't seem too scaldingly hot, slurp up a little soup out of that top vent. At some point, you might want to drizzle some dumpling sauce into the spoon holding the bun, maybe even into the little hole you've bitten into the bun. Once you've slurped much of the soup out of that hole, and it's cooled down a little, you can toss the whole thing into your mouth. You'll end up with the thin dumpling wrapper, a little meatball-ish nugget of filling, and what's left of the soup/juice, mingling with the gingery dumpling sauce.

    These at Sakura are just small enough that if you let them cool a little, you can actually dispense with some of these steps and just toss the whole thing in your mouth, but I actually kind of like the ritual process: nip slurp, apply sauce, eat.

    If you get the XLB at Zhi Wei Guan a little further east on Race street, their menu actually has a little pictoral instruction on how to eat them. And heck, it's fun to make the comparison in styles. And more juicy buns is never a bad thing...

    Good luck, come on back and tell us how you do!!

  3. Anonymous4:53 PM

    I'm so glad you posted about this, because every time I walk past that sign in front of Sakura I wonder about the difference between these xiao long bao and the ones from Dim Sum Garden. But it's good to know that it's made by the same people who were responsible for the delicious mouthfuls of pure joy that I get every time I go to DSG. Now I can go in there confidently and order these also :)

  4. thank you for post this! i've been told by a friend about this place but was wary of how the taste might be. The only other place that i've eaten these soup dumplings was in New York, in a restaurant called Joe's Shanghai. If you havent gotten the chance to try it yet, you really should. =)

  5. Hi Huong,

    Joe's Shanghai is the place were I tried my first soup dumplings, and ever since then, I'd been complaining about not having any (good) examples here in Philly. Then Dim Sum garden arrived, then Zhi Wei Guan, then Sakura. Sadly, ZWG has closed, but the other two are still going strong.

    There was just an alarming report on eGullet saying that Sakura didn't seem to have soup dumplings, and might not be serving them regularly any more. I'm HOPING that something got lost in translation, or the server just didn't explain it well. I haven't had time to go check it out myself, but will soon. Here's hoping they're still available!

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  7. BTW, there's a helpful video from Jamie at Midtown Lunch, shot at Sakura Mandarin, instructing us on the proper soup dumpling technique.


  8. So I've been visiting sakura on a once a month basis to get mg dumpling fix. I must say Joe's Shanghai is better but sakura will do. And yes, they still serve them. Also, the scallion pancakes have quickly become my favorites. I look forward to the soup dumplings there as much as the pancakes.