Philadelphia: Pan-Fried Juicy Pork Buns at Dim Sum Garden
If you've ever had Shanghainese soup dumplings (xiao long bao), you've probably had the thin-skinned kind filled with pork (or sometimes pork and crab) meatballs and rich, ultra-savory meat broth that gushes out when you bite through the wrapper. But as I recently discovered, there's a similar, heartier version: pan-fried soup dumplings, or shengjianbao.
While I was home in Philly over Thanksgiving, my dad and I hit up one of our favorite Chinatown spots: Dim Sum Garden, a brightly lit Shanghainese dive located underneath the Convention Center overhang, just across from the Reading Terminal Market. They make the best xiao long bao I've ever had (not to mention terrific house-made noodles with pork and pickled cabbage and gorgeously flaky scallion pancakes), and I was all ready to tuck into a steamer basket full of them when I noticed they'd recently added shengjianbao, listed as Pan-Fried Juicy Pork Buns ($5.75 for 6). (Note: They're not listed on the online menu yet.)
I'd never seen or had this style before, so the idea of a pan-fried soup dumpling seemed impossible; no way those delicate, thin-skinned little parcels don't spring a leak if they're seared in a hot pan. It wasn't until the plate landed in front of me that I realized there's a key difference between the two: the wrapper. Rather than paper-thin skins, shengjianbao are made with a dough that's noticeably thicker and chewier—a relative of the leavened dough used to make the steamed barbecued pork buns traditionally served at Cantonese dim sum.
The other major difference: with shengjianbao, the wrapper is the focus, not the filling. The crust is deeply browned and flavorful, but there's less soup inside. That makes them a bit easier to eat, but I missed the delicate, silky dough that comes on steamed xiao long bao—and also the challenge of slurping up all the hot broth before it spills all over the plate.
My ideal scenario: Order both.
Dim Sum Garden
59 N. 11th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107 (map)
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.