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Where to find Houston's best soup dumplings

Houston Chronicle 2/2/2023 Mai Pham, Correspondent

Soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao (xlb), have been an obsession of mine for years. I remember trying them for the first time when Michelin-starred specialist Din Tai Fung opened its first location in Arcadia, Calif., in the early 2000s. My friends and I took a mini culinary pilgrimage to the restaurant, waiting in line for three hours.

After a few, I was a pro: I’d bite a hole in the delicate dumpling skin, and blow to cool the scalding broth before slurping it up in all its juicy glory. I'd then plop the dumpling in my mouth and chew, reveling in the luscious pork filling, the flavors so well balanced that I skipped the vinegar-ginger dip and the chili oil altogether.

MORE FROM MAI PHAM: Fung's Kitchen finally reopens 2 years after catastrophic fire. It's worth the wait

Houston doesn’t have a Din Tai Fung yet — nor, from what a businessman who tried to bring the franchise to Houston told me, will a location be forthcoming in the near future. But that doesn’t mean the city doesn't have excellent soup dumplings.

Indeed, artisanal soup dumplings — the kind where the wrappers are made from scratch, hand-formed, then steamed right before serving, just like at Din Tai Fung — have taken off here in the past decade. Where are the best soup dumplings in town? We slurped and chewed our way around local restaurants to find out. These are our eight favorites. 

 

Wanna Bao

Husband and wife team Dean and Grace Dee quit their petroleum engineer jobs and bet on making Midtown's Wanna Bao the destination for the best soup dumplings in Houston. Indeed the xiaolongbao here are incredibly juicy, and the dumpling wrapper is extremely thin but doesn’t break easily, meaning you can enjoy a whole order of six without worrying about the soup leaking through the bottom of the steamer basket. Choose from the traditional pork, or crab and pork fillings. Because they’re made to order, the menu has a disclaimer that says there’s a wait of at least 12 minutes before they’re served. Demand is so high that Wanna Bao created its own unique to-go packaging: each xlb in gets an individual cup. $10.95 for six pork xlb; $11.95 for six crab and pork xlb; 2708 Bagby, 832-623-7265; wannabao.com

 

Duck N Bao

In the corner of a strip mall near Memorial Park, Duck N Bao looks like an average takeout joint until you step through its doors into one of the prettiest Chinese restaurants in the city. Decorated with custom woodwork and murals, the restaurant looks like an upscale teahouse. Peking duck and the soup dumplings are must orders. The latter come six to an order with a choice of three fillings — pork, crab and pork, or chicken. The crab and pork dumplings are the most memorable, but all are generally excellent, filled with soup, and made to order with with super thin skins. There’s a small exhibition window where two dumpling chefs work side-by-side, one rolling the dough; the other forming the dumplings. The restaurant also has a full bar with excellent craft cocktails. Try the baijiu-based Kung Fu Panda, served in an adorable panda cup. $10.95 for six pork or chicken xlb; $12.95 for six crab and pork xlb; 5535 Memorial, Suite O, 832-849-1783; 17333 Spring Cypress, Suite H, Cypress, 832-653-7572; ducknbao.com

 

One Dragon Restaurant

One Dragon in Asiatown built its reputation on soup dumplings nearly a decade ago and is still going strong. A mom-and-pop restaurant owned by Yongming Di and wife Jane Zhou, this no-frills spot has 10 tables, a single chef and consistently great food. The soup dumplings come six to an order and remain among the best you can find in Houston, each dumpling so chock-full of soup that if you pick it up with a chopstick, the dumpling will sag with the weight of the soup inside. You can choose a filling of either pork or pork and shrimp; both are exceptional. One Dragon also offers stellar sheng jian bao, or crispy bottom buns. These are also filled with soup, but are made of thicker dough with a hot, pan-fried bottom. $8.99 for six pork xlb; $10.99 for six pork and shrimp xlb; 9310 Bellaire, 713-995-6545

 

Trendy Dumpling

Centrally located near Greenway/Upper Kirby and always busy, Trendy Dumpling offers comforting Chinese food in the form of dumplings, noodles, Peking duck and Sichuan-style entrees. The soup dumplings are made behind a small window and steamed to order. The wrappers are a bit thicker than those found at Wanna Bao, but the filling is appropriately juicy with a luscious pork flavor. Trendy also has a fun-to-eat giant truffle soup dumpling. After it’s delivered to your table a straw is inserted for broth slurpage while the remaining dumpling can be broken down with a spoon and eaten in small morsels. Trendy also offers a variety of other dumplings, such as hot and spicy dumplings, shrimp har gow, and crispy bottom bao. Another fan favorite: chocolate soup dumplings, which come four to an order and are available in white chocolate, milk chocolate or a mix of both. $9.50 for six pork xlb; $6 for giant truffle dumpling; $6 for four chocolate soup dumplings; 3285 Southwest Fwy; 713-750-9398; trendydumpling.com

 

Hi Trendy Dumpling

Hi Trendy Dumpling is bigger and brighter than its sister restaurant, with a whimsical hand-painted mural on the back wall and a giant exhibition window overlooking the kitchen. Customers are encouraged to venture up close and watch the dumplings being made, so don’t be shy. The soup dumplings here are a bit more refined than the original Trendy, with a slightly thinner, silkier dumpling skin.

At five dumplings per order, there’s just enough to leave you wanting more. So go ahead, throw in an order of pan fried bao, chili oil dumplings and crispy shrimp balls. And save room for dessert. Like its sister location, the chocolate soup dumplings come steaming hot with oozy, melty chocolate inside. $8 for 5 pork xlb; $5.50 for 4 chocolate soup dumplings; 107 Yale, Suite 600; 713-426-9011; hidtrendydumpling.com

 

Bao Shi Yi

With four locations around town, including one with a drive-through window, this fast casual concept makes it easy to stop by for a quick bite when you’re craving soup dumplings. Called “soup buns” on the menu, Bao Shi Yi’s xlb are not made to order, but prepared ahead of time in a commissary kitchen. The skin is therefore a bit thicker than the ones that are made just before steaming. Still, these xlb have a decent amount of soup inside and have a good pork-y flavor. One order also comes with eight dumplings as opposed to the standard six elsewhere, good value. Bonus: If you don’t want to eat them at the restaurant, you can purchase them frozen to steam at home; a bag of 50 xlb bag costs $43. $9.62 for 8 pork xlb; 9715 Bellaire, Suite B, 832-925-7913; 4031 FM 1463, Suite 60, Katy, 832-437-9958; 2328 W, Holcombe, 832-530-4635; 3819 Kirby, 346-867-3941; baoshiyibunhouse.com

 

Tiger Noodle House

What started out as one location in Katy has expanded to five across the city. The menu leans toward Sichuan cuisine with items such as Chengdu grilled fish, but you’ll also find General Tso’s Chicken, Taiwanese sausage and xiaolongbao. The soup dumplings here come 10 to an order; they're about the size of a dollar coin, with thicker skins. They have flavor and style though, so if you’re not picky about thicker skins and don’t mind a smaller dumpling, these should satisfy. All Tiger Noodle locations serve pork xlb, several locations also offer a chicken version as well. $8.95 for 10 xlb; multiple locations; tigernoodletexas.com

 

Peony and Crane

An under-the-radar spot in a standalone building next to Squable in the Heights, Peony and Crane is the first restaurant project for owner Ying Zhou. Zhou grew up in Houston and always wondered why she couldn’t find “real” Chinese food in the Heights, so she opened Peony and Crane. Her chef, chef, Sun, comes with more than 20 years experience cooking Chinese food. His xiaolongbao have a thicker dumpling skin than Wanna Bao, but they’re obviously fresh and hand made, with a good gush of soup inside and a flavorful pork filling. $12 for six soup dumplings. 626 W. 19th, Suite 1; 346-204-5062; peonyandcranehouston.com

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