OPINION | Why Do We Crave ‘The Best?’
A quest for epic xiao long bao leads to a deeper realization.
February 1, 2019 ● 3 min read
By Omar Mamoon | Photo via Din Tai Fung/ Art by Cassandra Landry
Beings friends with J. Kenji López-Alt means you get sucked into the occasional heated debate or two on social media. The prolific writer and restaurateur recently threw his followers a sizeable gauntlet: Why was it so damn difficult to find good soup dumplings in the Bay Area?
He was plagued by over-steamed, mushy, soupless dumplings that didn’t live up to the ones he had eaten in Shanghai, he explained. Where were all the dumplings with thin, tensile skins, just barely holding together a scalding pouch of soup? I jumped in with the all-too-obvious Din Tai Fung endorsement, the global chain oft-cited as the xiao long bao gold standard; Kenji was only interested in mom-and-pop shops. Back and forth we went over a few recommendations from his followers, and we eventually decided to taste through them together to find the dumpling diamond in the rough. The Best Dumpling.
Not long into our journey, I came upon a stark, existential realization: The best might be bull.
We were sitting in a restaurant called Bing’s Dumpling, located in an eclectic strip mall in Fremont, a suburb located just 40 minutes south of San Francisco. This was the third stop in our dumpling expedition. Just a few days prior, we did a dumpling bang-bang, starting with Din Tai Fung (so as to calibrate our palates and set a control) followed by Din Ding Dumpling House, a highly recommended spot in a different, but nearby, strip mall in Fremont. At Bing’s, we slowly made our way through a basket of pork xiao long bao, stopping in between bites to discuss the differences. Bing’s and Din Ding’s dumplings were larger than Din Tai Fung’s; where Din Tai Fung’s soup was more of a clean, almost consomme-like broth, both Din Ding and Bing’s were considerably thicker, richer and more savory. The skins at Din Ding and Bing’s were identical in their thickness, but the former had a doughy top-knot, which was vexing. We agreed that the dumpling dough at Din Tai Fung had an almost silky texture and was expertly constructed with tight, neat and numerous pleats.
To better understand the anatomy, we’d place a few xiao long bao on a plate and tear open the dough, allowing the precious meaty juices to spill onto the plate. We’d examine the skin thickness, the size of the fillings, and the amount of liquid it held. We documented all of it, neighboring tables watching quizzically as we used our menus to shield the fluorescent lights. I remember feeling guilty knowing that someone was back there in the kitchen laboring over these dumplings, carefully constructing them so that the soup would not spill out; meanwhile here we were, ripping open the dumplings like savages, deconstructing the artistry for the sake of a picture and some sort of higher level of dumpling understanding. After the seventh or so time doing this at Bing’s, I couldn’t stand it anymore.
So often we’re chasing the ideal—be it in a restaurant or not—and the only way to satisfy it is with more. We want more, and we size up what we don’t have. We wonder what and where the next hot ticket item will be and hate the feeling of FOMO even while it drives us on. If we could only bear witness to The Best, we imagine we’d be happy.
There’s much more to a restaurant than a single dish, and there are many more reasons why people patronize a restaurant. Maybe it’s convenient, maybe because it’s a good value, maybe they grew up going there and it makes them nostalgic. The reasons for eating dumplings vary, but for most people, whether or not they are the best of all time may not matter; whether they are the best in that moment does.
To rank anything, whether The Best Tacos in Los Angeles or Best Slice of Pizza in New York or The Best Soup Dumplings in the Bay Area, is personal, and therefore, perhaps, unrankable. “People have different views of the best XLB,” the illustrious Fuchsia Dunlop, food writer and Western authority on Chinese cuisine, told me in an email. “There is no definitive standard.” Maybe we should have known better—although there's certainly nothing wrong with spending a weekend or two joyfully downing dumplings by the dozen with your best food friend.
I’m not sure if I’ve become wiser with age or just jaded with experience, but I look back at so much of the food media I consume—the Best New Chefs, the Hot 10, the 38 Essential, the 50 Best —and I can’t tell what exactly drove me to consume it. Perhaps the constant search of something new and different keeps my brain alive; but I’ve come to realize it’s the stories, the context, and the information and inspiration that last. What’s less useful is the arbitrary numerical ranking.
I’m not sure why Kenji was having such a difficult time finding good soup dumplings in the Bay Area, but I’m glad he did. It made me realize how much the chase is about the people—the ones who make the perfect dumplings, and the ones who rip them apart with you.