I’ve been telling everyone since returning from Shanghai, that everything else was rather forgettable other than two “Bs”: The Bund and Bao. So it seemed pretty apt that my first post should be of tang bao 汤包 (soup dumplings) and sheng jian bao 生煎包 (pan-fried pork buns).
I had an abundance of these baos on my recent spontaneous trip with Cheryl and Flora. We loved them so much we went as far as eating a variation of these buns for three days straight. That’s 3/5 of the time we were there (or maybe 3/4 since we took a morning flight back to Singapore on Day 5). That’s really quite a huge amount if you think about it since most of the time we were eating a load of other stuff too.
Crazy crowded street lined by eateries
Just a short walk away from our hotel (we were staying at the super posh Shanghai Marriott City Centre) was this cluster of eateries along Huang He Road 黄河路. Among them were two foodie favourites, Jia Jia Tang Bao 佳家汤包 and Xiao Yang Sheng Jian 小样生煎, which is located just opposite of each other. How convenient!
These two eateries are neck-to-neck in terms of popularity and snaking queues means that you’ll surely get an authentic experience of Shanghai, complete with the anxious pushy middle-aged ladies and men who are constantly ignoring the concept of “personal space” to inch another step closer to peer through the windows of the shop.
Jia Jia Tang Bao 佳家汤包
Queues grow no matter the time till the soup dumplings at Jia Jia Tang Bao are sold out
Not for the impatient, a wait is necessary to get a taste of these soup dumplings
We arrived at 11:00am, understandably, a little late and risky of running into a sold out situation, so we devised a plan. Cheryl would order the sheng jian bao for takeaway from Xiao Yang Sheng Jian, while I would grab us a table at Jia Jia Tang Bao.
Caught on camera by Flora while queuing for a seat
I got into the queue at an opportune moment because not long after throngs of people started queuing behind me and it stretched down the street, at least past several shops. It’s not obvious in the photo, but the lady behind me was really close to me and even then this is considered conservative distance. I was lucky it wasn’t body-to-body.
Be ready to be shoved a little and there may be people in the queue who will push you forward when the queue moves just so they can repeatedly peer through the windows. Jostling is the norm. Generally, the Shanghainese crowd isn’t the most friendly and they can be rather “in your face”, so don’t expect polite smiles or eye contact of that sort. That said, we’ve met a couple of helpful folk on our trip, just don’t hope for it.
The queue took about fifteen to twenty minutes before I reached the counter and by then most of the tang bao were sold out save for the pork-filled soup dumplings with crab roe, crab meat and dumplings purely filled with crab meat.
Just a tip: When ordering, everything still listed on the wooden board above the counter is what remains (they remove the wooden planks with the different types of tang bao as they get sold out). Don’t ask if they still have any of the buns that aren’t already on there because you’ll get a curt reply from the cashier that what you see is what you get and not to ask any questions.
Understandably, with so many people rushing into the shop to order and mostly are quite loud, bordering on obnoxious, it is no wonder we don’t get much service here. One such obnoxious customer was speaking over us as we tried to order and emphasised that she was ordering a take-out. She too got a no-nonsense reply in snappy Mandarin, “Take-outs still need to wait in line.” You go, frustrated cashier, you go!
Staff nimbly knead the dumplings with clockwork precision
This is the tiny kitchen where all the work gets done. At any time about six staff dextrously create the soup dumplings with great efficiency. While a couple of others work on steaming the buns.
This cubby hole eatery is so small, its a wonder they manage to pack in as many people as they do. It’s very common to share communal tables with other patrons and you’ll be amazed how you’ll be able to squeeze yourself into a tiny space (mainly because they have stools instead of chairs here too). Mostly people are in and out in less than thirty minutes and everything is chop chop here.
With the number of people streaming in, it just amazes me that they take so much less time to deliver the food than in Singapore. On one hand, you don’t get warm service, but the service that you get at least over here at Jia Jia Tang Bao is brisk and timely.
A dozen dumplings waiting to be eaten
A cross section of the tang bao: tasty soup, egg yolk and pork
Each basket has twelve of these steaming hot tang bao. The ones we ordered were not the original pork tang bao that Jia Jia Tang Bao is famous for as they were already sold out, but a variation which includes a little bit of egg yolk. We also ordered the pork tang bao with crab meat (which I advise you skip because it tasted fishy).
Can’t wait to stuff it into my mouth, but first, a photo
I can understand why this place is so popular. They have got the formula just right. The tang bao skin is soft and thin. The quality of these buns can rival that of the Taiwanese, Din Tai Fung, which is known for their excellent Xiao Long Bao 小籠包, a type of tang bao.
There was also plenty of soup encased in the delicate tang bao skin and the pork was fresh and complemented by the yolk. I definitely found no trouble eating more than my fair share of the steamer basket.
The verdict? Absolutely worth the wait. The positive review was unanimous. By far, the very best soup dumplings we had all trip. These are absolutely addictive and I was popping dumpling after dumpling without any hesitation till I was so darn bloated. I’ll even be back if I ever decide to visit Shanghai again.
As reference, we also tasted the tang bao from Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao 南翔小笼包 though from one of the chain outlets in the shopping district, West Nanjing Road 南京西路, which frankly was extremely disappointing and not the least bit enjoyable. You’ll have to trust me. I am not a picky eater, because most of the time, as Cheryl and Flora would attest, I was clearing the plates of the leftovers. (And when I say clearing, I meant that I eat all of them.) It’s really hard to make me thoroughly unimpressed and even more difficult to have me disappointed. So yep.
Xiao Yang Sheng Jian 小样生煎
Just across the street is Xiao Yang Sheng Jian
As I had my own battle with the anxious auntie, Cheryl was also having a similar ten minute wait at Xiao Yang Sheng Jian just across the street.
While we did not eat there, I caught I glimpse of the interior of the eatery and it is also very small and packed like sardines. However, unlike Jia Jia Tang Bao, Xiao Yang Sheng Jian has a separate queue to a takeaway counter so if you’re looking to takeaway. This is a little more convenient because you don’t have to wait impatiently together with those who are holding on for table.
Cheryl triumphantly showing us the sheng jian bao
We bought both the pan-fried pork buns and steamed versions for a taste test. We really walloped these as we were queuing outside Jia Jia Tang Bao.
I have great love for sheng jian bao since my days at BANG PR, the agency I worked in at Raeburn Park. There used to be a nice little Shanghainese diner which sold the most amazing sheng jian bao. It has since moved out and been replaced so I really miss having these delicious buns.
Xiao Yang Sheng Jian does not disappoint. It is as good as it looks in the photos and has such a deliciously fried crisp exterior and a meaty interior with generous portions of soup waiting to spurt out.
Rich soup stock flowing into the plastic spoon
If it is too big to consume in the pouches of your cheeks (most likely this is also impossible for most), you’ll need to drain the soup and slurp that first. My advice is to use a spoon to pierce through the skin of the bun (as seen in the photo above) and scoop the soup out slowly. Once you’re done with the soup then proceed to portion or cut it up.
Whatever and however you fancy eating it, do it only after you’ve completely emptied the bun from soup stock. Do not attempt to eat it by breaking the charred side. I promise if you do so, it will explode and leak soup stock causing quite a greasy mess. (I assure you this is not the outcome you want. Not fun.)
We also visited a Xiao Yang Sheng Jian chain outlet at West Nanjing Road and found it to be consistent and very tasty. Plus, the outlet which is within a mall, has very short queues (if not none) and has a very comfortable and spacious casual restaurant space.
If I gave star ratings, this is clearly a 10 over 10 stars kind of eatery.
Both Jia Jia Tang Bao and Xiao Yang Sheng Jian are must visits when you pop by Huang He Road. The whole stretch is peppered with tang bao eateries, but there is definitely a reason why only these two eateries get a bulk of the business there. It’s not just the tourists who flock to the two shops, but so many locals as well.
For the foodies who are planning a visit to Shanghai, the nearest subway station within walking distance of Huang He Road is People’s Square 人民广场.