At Din Tai Fung in South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California, a line begins forming about 45 minutes before the restaurant opens, with wait times reaching into the two-hour range as the day progresses. The reason? Din Tai Fung is a famous restaurant chain based in Taiwan that's known for its xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, something that foodies the world over are as obsessed about as they are about where they can find the best bowl of ramen or who has the best fried chicken.
In Houston, when you’re looking for the best soup dumplings, the pickings are rather slim. Fu Fu Cafe used to have serviceable soup dumplings, but the wrapper was always too thick, and recent orders have yielded dumplings that fall apart (leaking all the soup) before you can even get them to your mouth. Dim sum joints such as HK Dim Sum also serve soup dumplings. Again, they're decent, but are not very well filled with soup and are just adequate in flavor.
For a while, E-Tao in the Galleria II area seemed to reign supreme on the soup dumpling front, but even that restaurant's dumplings are not as effortless as they used to be, perhaps because one of its key chefs struck out on his own to open up One Dragon Restaurant on Bellaire Boulevard, a mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall and my current best bet for soup dumplings in Houston.
I discovered it purely by accident on social media. John Sikhattana, the executive chef of Straits Asian Bistro in Memorial City, posted a picture of them one afternoon on Instagram, saying that for him, they were the best soup dumplings in Houston.
So strong was his proclamation that I found myself visiting the small restaurant that very same evening, and sat next to a couple who was also there because of John’s picture.
Since then, I’ve visited One Dragon Restaurant close to a dozen times, and have never left disappointed. The husband and wife who own the restaurant speak only Chinese, but welcome you warmly. The same waitress who has served me on every occasion that I’ve visited speaks the bare minimum of English as well.
The restaurant’s clientele are primarily multi-generational Chinese. I love seeing the gray-haired grandmothers nibbling on soup dumplings or digging into the other family-style Shanghai-style dishes that you can order there.
There’s a braised pork belly in black vinegar that is soothing and homey, which goes well with white rice and a dish of sautéed green vegetables. A rectangular pan-fried red bean cake, which tastes like a pan-fried mochi, kind of sticky and chewy but crisp on the outside, makes for a tasty end-of-meal treat as well.
But the thing to get here to the exclusion of everything else? The soup dumplings. They are the first line item on the menu, where they are listed as “Fresh meat small steamed soup package of Shanghai.” They come six to an order for $5.99, and because one order is never enough, I always get two orders just for myself.
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Two things distinguish these soup dumplings from the rest. The first is that the dumpling wrapper is extremely thin, to the point of being almost translucent, but still elastic enough so that it doesn’t break when you pick it up. The second is that these are some of the soupiest soup dumplings I’ve had in Houston. In fact, if you gently pick up the dumpling from the very top, it takes on the shape of a mini water balloon because it's so heavy on the bottom with liquid.
Both of these qualities make the xiao long bao just a joy to eat: Bite a small hole in the wrapper, slurp up all the luscious, pork-flavored soup in the middle, then dip the dumpling in the vinegar and ginger sauce before finishing off the whole package in your mouth. Mmm. Delicious.