Do you like Shanghai soup dumplings? Of course you do. Here you are, reading this sentence, after all. And when you eat them — at Joe’s Shanghai if you are in 1998 or are Jean-Georges Vongerichten, or at Shanghai Asian Cuisine if you are Robert Sietsema, or Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao if you live in Flushing or are up for that kind of travel, or at the Grand Sichuan International in Chelsea if you are me, most of the times I have eaten them over the past fifteen years — do you also eat the leaves of steamed cabbage upon which they sit in their wicker-basket platters? No? Oh, you should. I always do. (I have kind-of a hang-up about wasting food that probably goes back to my mom over-reminding me about starving children in Ethiopia when I was a kid. But it also might just be because I’m a glutton.) Anyway, I always eat the leaves of steamed cabbage even they are technically a functional garnish (I think they keep the soup dumplings from sticking to the basket) and even though steamed cabbage is, you know, rarely the most exciting element of a meal at a Chinese restaurant. But I recently discovered a better way to eat the leaves of cabbage that come with soup dumplings. And so have a suggestion for what you should do for lunch today.
First, go to Shanghai Café Deluxe on Mott Street between Hester and Canal. It is a fun place to go, because it has a ceiling of different-colored neon tubes behind translucent sheets of plastic. It looks like a little bit like an apartment-complex rec room decorated for a party by the Thompson Twins. I went there for the first time on a recent Saturday because I read about how good the soup dumplings were on a website that’s more obsessive about food than I am, and my kid takes karate class nearby.
Order the soup dumplings, which are the first item on the menu and are called “steamed tiny buns with crab meat and pork.” (Don’t worry, they’re totally kosher.) They are delicious. Thicker skinned than some others that you find, which, this would normally be a drawback for me, because I generally like my dumplings, any kind of dumplings, to have as thin a skin as possible. Like tracing paper. But while these ones stand-up higher than those at, say, Joe’s Shanghai or Grand Sichuan International, and you can’t see the soup bulging the sides like a water-balloon, they are excellent nonetheless. The soup is clearer, cleaner, more liquidy, less meaty. But you can really taste the crabmeat in the dumpling; it doesn’t get overwhelmed by the pork, which is a problem I’ve experienced at other places. There’s even a little crispness left at the top of the meatball, where its pinched in the dough, and a slight reddish spiciness. You will like them, I think.
Okay. Also order — and here’s where it gets a little tricky, because this it’s not on the menu, so you will be ordering “off-menu,” so will probably feel like something of a jerk. As well you should. Because who orders “off-menu,” other than egomaniacal movie stars like Danny Devito in Get Shorty? But that’s okay. Do it anyway: ask for scrambled eggs with baby shrimp. It’s a common dish in China (I have been told by someone who has been to China) and lots of Chinese restaurants do have it on the menu. And they can definitely make it at Shanghai Café Deluxe. In fact, they make it very well. The eggs fluffy, the shrimp fresh-tasting, some soft scallion. I asked for this dish because it was 11:30 in the morning when I went, and while I was having soup dumplings, I wanted some eggs for breakfast, too.
So what you do is, once you’ve eaten the dumplings that sit on the cabbage (and you know how to eat the dumplings, right? You pick them up and nibble a hole in the skin and sip out the soup, before munching the rest of the package), take a cabbage leaf — there are usually three or four per basket, I think — and spread it on your plate and scoop up some of your big-time-hot-shot-rock-star-ordered-“off-menu” scrambled eggs and shrimp and put them on top of the cabbage leaf. Then fold it up like a taco or a mini-burrito. Being steamed, the cabbage leaf should be floppy and easily to manipulate in this way, and being green, and vegetable, and slightly sour and funky, it adds a perfect third counterpoint to the rich and briny eggs and shrimp. (Yellow, pink and green, to paraphrase Chuck D, you know what I mean? And I’m sorry for paraphrasing Chuck D like that.)
Oh, and do dip it into the sauce that comes with the soup dumplings. Shanghai Café’s is exceptionally good — more vinegar than soy sauce, with large chunks of ginger and garlic.