We set out to find and devour stuffed food from every possible culture right here in the Bayou City. From empanadas to dumplings, kolaches to samosas, we're getting stuffed.
We can all thank chef David Chang and his hit Netflix show, Ugly Delicious, for giving America an insatiable craving for soup dumplings (while begrudgingly overlooking his asinine opinions on tacos and Italian food). Those beautiful, delicate pouches of steamed dough and hot broth sitting in dim sum baskets looked so good on screen we collectively set out to to explore our cities in search of them.
Of course, as with all good things, the soup dumpling was popular in the States long before it went viral on Netflix and Instagram. Soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, have been available stateside for decades (yes, even in Houston), though mostly in obscure Chinatown joints and on menus illegible to the average gringo. In recent years, however, they've gone mainstream.
As more trendy Dim Sum kitchens and dumpling houses open in cities across the country, the quirky dough-wrapped bites of broth have become a common snack. Earlier this summer, a Sichuan-Shanghainese kitchen called Wanna Bao brought xiao long bao to Houston's Midtown neighborhood for the first time.
The restaurant was opened by husband and wife, Dean and Grace Dee, and was already something of a Houston legacy before it opened its doors. Dean's family owns Houston's original soup dumpling joint, Chinatown's One Dragon Restaurant. The petroleum engineer, now restaurateur and executive chef, worked in his father's kitchen to master the art of Shangheinese cooking and develop his own dumpling-centric menu.
The Dee's Midtown kitchen is a beautifully designed space with wood features, dim lighting and contemporary Chinese art on the walls. The menu is naturally heavy on the dumplings, but also features an extensive list of Sichuan pepper dishes and Shanghai street food. The house specialties are the shrimp and pork xiao long bao and the crispy bottom pork dumplings.
We ordered the pork xiao long bao, which are surprisingly smaller than expected. This makes sense since the idea is to eat them in one bite or risk dousing your lap in hot broth. Soup dumplings are expectedly less rigid than typical dumplings, so some delicate chopstick work is required. If you opt for the stab and grab method, maybe use a spoon instead.
The dumpling skin, while maintaining its integrity against the broth, was still incredibly soft and tender. The warm pork broth was savory and well flavored, while not extremely hot (no need to fear the dreaded mouth burn). Inside the small dumplings were tender little pieces of seasoned pork that give much needed texture and shape to the bite-sized bowls of soup.
Though some would rather make the hike to Bellaire for the original One Dragon, the soup dumplings at Wanna Bao are, in fact, worth the hype. The young husband and wife team have managed to export their own little slice of Chinatown to Midtown where they now serve authentic Shanghai dishes and mouthwatering xiao long bao to curious inner-loopers.
Wanna Bao is open Friday through Sunday from 11:30 am to 9:30 pm and Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 11:30 am to 3 pm, and 5:30 to 9:30 pm.