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(Illustration by Wes Rand)
Love at first slurp
A newcomer to Las Vegas finds an old favorite in xiao long bao
This story first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of rjmagazine, a quarterly published inside the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

For his first meal out in Vegas, new restaurant reporter slurps

When I’m in a new city, I seek to slurp.

Some folks, wherever they go, hunt the pleasurable gnaw of chicken wings. Others search the smothered bliss of biscuits and gravy. But I always scout for a Chinese restaurant serving xiao long bao (shao loong bao), the steamed dumplings whose twisted tops you nibble off to slurp up the hot rich savory broth inside.

And so the other evening, for my first dinner out as a newcomer to Las Vegas, I join an old friend at Xiao Long Dumplings, a spot that opened last September in the Chinatown Plaza on Spring Mountain Road. My friend visits Vegas frequently for work, and she suggests Xiao Long Dumplings because it comes highly recommended (and she knows I’m a xiao long bao fiend).

A steamer of house special dumplings touches down. I flub the first dumpling, piercing its skin with my chopstick (and releasing the liquid cargo) before I can nudge it onto the soup spoon. The second time, success: The package settles, I nibble an opening, slurp the soup, then finish the remaining dumpling and its ground pork filling.

Before I know it, the house special dumplings and a steamer of shrimp and pork dumplings have been dispatched. Across the restaurant, a giant dumpling mascot (Chairman Bao) sporting an exaggerated topknot twist winks at diners while offering a steamer of xiao long bao.

You know what? I’ll have one more.

(Wes Rand)
(Wes Rand)

Global bites

Xiao long bao, which are often called soup dumplings, are all about balance.

The skins must be sturdy enough to hold the contents but delicate enough to be nearly translucent (and eaten in one bite). When they’re lifted, the dumplings should sag, like bellies, but never burst and spill the soup. That broth is created when the meat gelatin in the filling melts during steaming.

I’ve slurped my way through Nanxiang Mantou Dian, the famed xiao long bao purveyor in the City God’s complex in Shanghai. I’ve done the same across Asia at Din Tai Fung, the dumpling and noodle chain that opened an outpost in Aria in October 2020.

Some of the best xiao long bao I’ve had stateside were at Yank Sing, the celebrated dim sum destination in San Francisco, and at a Chinese restaurant in Portland, Oregon, in the Laurelhurst section, a neighborhood that also doubles as a shelter magazine.

The xiao long bao at my first Vegas dinner admirably acquit themselves, with thin skins, plenty of hot broth, nicely seasoned filling and the proper single-bite size. I think about asking for Chinese black vinegar to dip the dumplings in (cuts the richness), but nah: I’m too busy eating to wait.

Dumplings then, now, forever

I grew up in Hawaii, where Asian dumplings and other Asian foods are part of the typical daily fare. My family loves to tell the story of me, as a toddler, always reaching out with a chubby Hawaiian hand (I am half Hawaiian) whenever the potstickers would pass by at a restaurant. (Truth: My grasp would extend when any food came by.)

Xiao long dumplings are a more recently acquired taste, one developed by trying them wherever I live or travel. I’m a dab hand at postickers, using a recipe I adapted years ago from chef Martin Yan, but soup dumplings belong to that family of dishes (pho, Peking duck and macarons also belong) that never repays the cost, technique and time required to prepare at home. They’re better left to the professionals.

I will remember

Xiao Long Dumplings also performs well elsewhere on the menu.

There are snap-crisp green beans stir-fried in X.O. sauce and thick planks of eggplant swaddled in garlic, soy, cornstarch and a dash of sugar.

The vegetable fried rice is light yet substantial and mildly flavored. Spicy noodles with chili oil, inspired by the numbing flowery heat of Sichuan cooking, feature a snarl of wheat noodles, dollops of chili paste, cooling slivers of cucumber, and a lake of chili oil beneath that coats as you toss.

Fine dishes all, but for me, the xiao long bao provide the reason for a return visit. Long after I’ve eaten in dozens of other Chinese restaurants in Las Vegas, I will remember this night and these xiao long bao.

You never forget your first dumpling.

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