Q&A: Jasper Shen, Dumpling Master
Since leaving Aviary in 2015, Jasper Shen has been hard at work on his upcoming restaurant, XLB, set to open in early January at 4090 N Williams Ave. “XLB,” a.k.a. xiao long bao, a.k.a. soup dumplings, will be the focus, alongside items you might find on the streets of Beijing: steam buns (we’re talking encased baozi, not the open-faced taco of Boke Bowl), stir fries, and noodle dishes like zhajiangmian, topped with tofu and a salty, spicy bean paste.
Shen’s concept for the restaurant is heartwarmingly simple. “It’s just Chinese food,” he says. “I want to make sure people have a good time, and that it’s really family-friendly. I want to make food without any pretension to it."
Having been skipped over by Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese soup dumpling mogul with locations in Seattle and California, Portland has largely been a xiao long bao void. Shen, who tested the water with a series of pop-ups, says it’s likely due to the labor-intensive nature of their production. XLB requires a super-strong but super-thin dough, and the perfect broth-to-meat ratio.
We sat down with Shen for an early taste.
Portlanders love lamenting our city’s lack of good Chinese food. What’s your take?
Since [leaving Aviary], I’ve had some extra time to visit different places. I’d been to most of the big-name places, so I’ve been trying to go to more of the hole-in-the-wall places. It’s true of any restaurant—any food scene: some things are done better at some places than at others. There’s a give-and-take. I don’t think Portland has terrible Chinese food, but I don’t think Portland really has Chinese food that’s on par with San Francisco or Vancouver.
What are your top picks?
It depends on what I’m looking for. For dim sum, I usually go to HK Café. I like Wei Wei’s Taiwanese beef noodle soup. I think Duck House’s xiao long bao are pretty good. Taste of Sichuan’s Sichuan stuff is pretty good. Frank’s Noodle House on Broadway—I think their stir-fried noodles are pretty decent.
What’s your take on Americanized Chinese food?
Honestly, I love American Chinese food. When I was growing up, I would help two of my uncles with their Midwest American Chinese restaurants, set in strip malls. I was little, so I would just answer the phones for take-out orders and bag things up. I love General Tso’s chicken more than almost anybody.
At the same time, I understand that it’s not really Chinese food. It’s not really the Chinese food that we ate at home, and what I want is to make a home-style restaurant. I’m not coming at this from a place of “I hate American Chinese food,” or “I hate fusion food.” This isn’t a middle finger to either of those things. This is the stuff, honestly, that I cook at home all the time—noodle dishes, stir fries, buns. I don’t cook xiao long bao at home very often—I just love it.
On the flip side, I think the really traditional stuff doesn’t allow people to discover or create new food, or think of different flavor combinations; everyone thinks there’s only one way to make it: the way their parents used to make it.
How will the type of food you cooked at Aviary compare to XLB?
[My work at] Aviary was more of a product of what and how I liked to eat when we first opened. It was a little more sit-down and structured. As I’ve gotten older, those things have become less important to me. So XLB is going to be counter service: it’s going to be about getting in and out, and getting good food at a good price point. Now that I have a kid, I can’t just sit down for long meals anymore. This is how I like to eat now: peeling away a lot of the extra stuff, getting to the core of the food and then moving on with my day.
XLB is set to open in early January, and keep an eye out for Portland Monthly's February issue, which includes a step-by-step guide to making Shen's exceptional soup dumplings.