I first discovered Xiao Long Bao in 2002. We were staying at the Four Seasons hotel in Shanghai on a fun trip with 3 other couples and someone in our group had asked the bell captain where we could get really good xiao long bao, a flavorful pork dumpling with soup inside. The hotel staffer directed us to his favorite cafeteria a couple of minutes' walk from the hotel.
The place was a bit of a dive, but my friends (all very discriminating foodies) were still enthusiastic, so I gamely went along. At the cafeteria cashier, we exchanged money for something that looked like poker chips, which we in turn exchanged for food from various counters serving different dishes. Finally, we each had a small bamboo steamer of xiao long bao in front of us. There's soup inside, my friends warned, pop the whole thing in your mouth and keep your lips shut tight. Wow, it was a delicious, flavorful sensation. We still talk about that xiao long bao to this day!
I have to mention that the then marketing director of the Four Season's Hotel (the sister of a very good friend, and the reason we were at the Four Seasons) was horrified that the staff had sent us to a local cafeteria! Relax, we said, we specifically asked for it. We told her about the delicious xiao long bao and recommended she give the place a try. Come to think of it, I never asked if she did!
Din Tai Fung's Xia Long Bao. You can see the broth through the very thin and transparent dough.
They say the Shanghai xiao long bao was invented by the Nanxiang Bun Shop, but all reviews point to the fast growing Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung, as having the best ones.
In Shanghai, there are six Din Tai Fung branches. They also have branches in the States and Sydney. We didn't get to visit any Din Tai Fung in Shanghai but we did in Hong Kong last year. I think most, if not all, of their branches feature an open kitchen where you can watch a whole bunch of white-clad chefs laboring intensely over the dumplings.
From observing our Chinese hosts, there seems to be a proper way to eat xiao ong bao.
Nibble through the dough, drink the soup through the hole, then eat the drained dumpling.
However, you won't get that literal burst of flavor in your mouth with this "proper way", so when I'm not with polite company, I still like to pop the whole thing in my mouth after it's cooled off a bit (the steaming soup can burn your palate)
We ordered xiao long bao at every meal we had in Shanghai, and while they were all good, it couldn't compare to that hole-in-the-wall experience we had long ago. Maybe it was a "first-time-can't-be-matched" episode--the memory of which just gets better as each year passes.