It's tourist time. Your friends and family are coming to visit this summer and they're all dying to try our famed xiao long bao soup dumplings.
Well, maybe they're not exactly dying to try this Shanghainese specialty, also known as simply XLB. Perhaps they don't even know what it is. Ah, but here's your chance to impress with your knowledge of Richmond's vast culinary diversity.
It is said that Richmond offers some of the best Chinese dining outside of China. But where does one even begin? The city is home to more than 400 Asian restaurants, nearly half of them contained within a three-block radius. The choices are daunting.
There are dozens of different regional Chinese cuisines available in Richmond and Vancouver. The most common is Hong Kong Cantonese, generally characterized by subtle flavours and refined technique. Kirin is an exemplar of this style. Lately, there has been a local explosion of Guangdong Cantonese cuisine, influenced by the influx of newly monied clientele from mainland China. Guangdong Cantonese is more ostentatious, with dishes that incorporate lots of foie gras and truffles. Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant, which I wrote about last year, is an excellent example.
Last, but by no means least, is Shanghai cuisine, also known as Hu cuisine. Compared with Cantonese, it is generally sweeter and richer with more stewing, braising and deep-frying. Sauces are darker, bolder and the dishes include more glutinous noodles and dumplings – for dinner as well, not just midday dim sum.
So which is the best Shanghai restaurant in Richmond? The answer is hotly debated and frequently changing. For years, I've recommended Shanghai River. But when I asked around recently, several trusted foodie friends said that popular standby has gone downhill. They pointed me instead to Top Shanghai.
It's a very casual restaurant, close to the Lansdowne Canada Line station, in a strip mall next door to a White Spot. It's totally unassuming, as are many good Chinese restaurants in Richmond, with big plastic menus and framed photographs of the kitchen's signature dishes hung all over the walls. If not seated before noon, you'll likely have to wait in line. My friends obviously aren't the only ones who think Top Shanghai is thus named for good reason.
You could dive straight into the XLB, and there are many types to order. But may I suggest that you start instead with Five Spicy Bran Dough, a classic Shanghainese appetizer.
What is bran dough? It looks like big cubes of fluffy Wonder Bread pocked with air bubbles, but it has a mild flavour that is often mistaken for tofu. It is, in fact, a gluten product made from wheat with bran added for texture. At Top Shanghai, it's braised in a rich soy sauce liquid with five-spice powder, infusing it with the darkly sweet notes of star anise, clove and cinnamon. It's served cold, which firms up the bread's spongy consistency, and is tossed with wood ear fungus. It's very different. I've never seen it before. But I loved it and strongly suggest you give it a try.
Next, try the free-range chicken. A half order will suffice for three or four people. As with most poached or shredded roast chickens, it's served cold in precut pieces, chopped through the bone, and adorned with its pimply yellow skin intact. These are specialty Asian chickens, raised in B.C., that are richer in taste, darker in colour and chewier in texture when compared with the average broiler. It's served with a light, sticky hua diao ice wine sauce that is likely sautéed with garlic, onion and ginger. On its own, the sauce has a strong liquor smell and kick. But that all disappears when it's dripped on the chicken. Together, they have a magical alchemy that simply enhances the pure flavour of chicken.
Now, you can tuck into the dumplings. I tried three types, and there are even more to choose from if you like. This is what the restaurant is known for. Might as well gorge while you're here.
First up, the standard xiao long bao shanghai soup dumpling. The doughy pastry purses are miraculously filled with nuggets of seasoned pork and a burst of warm soup. How does the soup get inside a dumpling? It's made with a collagen-rich pork stock that gels when cooled. It is sliced into cubes and mixed with ground pork and aromatics that are used as a filling. The soup reliquifies as the dumplings steam.
How do you eat them? Carefully. They arrive at the table extremely hot with the soup still boiling inside the dumpling. (At Top Shanghai, they're actually steamed individually on thin discs of radish to keep them from sticking to the bamboo basket. It's a nice touch.) Pick it up by the topknot and set it on your spoon. Some people poke a hole in side and let the broth leak out. I prefer to take a small nibble and sip before devouring the rest in a single bite.
These XLB are smaller than others I've tasted, and the skins are slightly thicker. Some restaurants aspire for skins so thin they're nearly translucent. But then they're so fragile they easily break, leaving you with nothing but a deflated dumpling. These are a good compromise. The pork meatball was incredibly tender, the broth fatty and flavourful.
Crab dumplings are similar, but with crab roe added to the pork mixture. The roe is quite pungent and could be an acquired taste. We also had pan-fried buns, which are similar to the pork XLB, but baked into fluffy white bread, slicked with sweet butter and browned.
Does Top Shanghai have the best XLB in Richmond? I'll have to keep eating and report back. But if you want to impress friends, or simply try these delightful dumplings for yourself, Top Shanghai won't let you down.