f you know one name in soup dumplings, chances are it’s Din Tai Fung. Xiao long bao—usually consisting of ground pork blended with molten-hot pork bone aspic, contained in a neatly pleated wheat flour wrapper—originated near Shanghai. But Taiwan-based franchise Din Tai Fung, serving soup dumplings since 1972, has spread the word with more than 170 locations worldwide. One of its Hong Kong outposts even garnered a Michelin star—five times. The chain is famous for its elegance and precision, each xiao long bao made with exactly 18 folds that from above make the dumplings look like swirling hurricanes of dough.
Din Tai Fung opened a Tigard location in Washington Square Mall in 2018, and a second metro-area location is scheduled to open at Pioneer Place in 2023. But when Seattle-based mini-chain Dough Zone took root along the South Waterfront in April, the city’s soup dumpling hierarchy was suddenly in need of reevaluation. Could a newly opened PNW-based purveyor beat a suburban outpost of a Taiwan classic? And what about the little guys, the independently owned Portland restaurants like Duck House and XLB?
I thought long and hard about what makes a good soup dumpling, an orchestra of elements that should be finely tuned to one another. The dumpling skins are individually rolled out with a tiny rolling pin and should be thin enough that they’re slightly translucent, but strong enough to withstand an airlift by chopsticks. The edges, where the dumplings receive their many folds, must be extra fine so you don’t end up with a doughy knot at the top. Obviously, the more folds, the prettier the dumpling—but be careful not to be taken in by flashy presentation. The flavor bomb comes from the soup of melted aspic, which should be lightly seasoned, not too greasy, and plentiful. When it comes to the pork filling, many prefer a minimalist approach, allowing the flavors of the meat to shine, but others embellish with ginger or sesame oil. Then there’s the dipping sauce. My preference is malty, slightly sweet black Chinkiang vinegar with shreds of fresh ginger, though some restaurants omit the ginger, while others serve the more tart, one-dimensional red vinegar instead.
At XLB (4090 N Williams Ave) in the Boise neighborhood, the steamy parcels arrive with red vinegar, but at least containing shreds of ginger. Self-serve black vinegar, if you prefer it, is available. Phew. The skins lean doughy but boast plenty of neat folds, and while the herb-tinged soup tends salty, there’s plenty of it for slurping.
Duck House (1968 SW Fifth Ave) is a beloved downtown jack-of-all-trades, with dishes ranging from Sichuan twice-cooked pork belly to honey walnut prawns, plus cocktails. But we came for the dumplings, and their appearance was impressive. We found a consistent 18 folds on each plump, larger-than-average dumpling—though digging through the black vinegar sadly yielded no ginger. The pork is coarsely ground, which distracts from the silkiness of the dumpling, and there’s a toastiness reminiscent of sesame oil that adds a unique flavor element. Each dumpling dispensed a decent amount of soup, though not quite enough to slurp out a whole mouthful.
One potential dark horse: Szechuan Chef (7007 S Macadam Ave), a quiet neighborhood restaurant in our sixth quadrant near Willamette Park with a giant photo of soup dumplings plastered on its door. Promising! The dumplings here aren’t very visually appealing—a few folds at the top, a couple of broken dumplings in our batch—but Szechuan Chef nails the accompaniments with shredded ginger and black vinegar. Where it truly shines is the amount of soup in each dumpling. This is Meat Gusher City, a plentiful mouthful of well-seasoned broth in each warm and slippery bite.
As for newcomer Dough Zone (1910 S River Dr), also in South Portland, the dough is ironically the low point: the area between folds is dry, and the knot at the top hardens into a nub. The black vinegar comes without ginger, but luckily the pork filling—which the restaurant proudly labels as Berkshire-Duroc—is salted to perfection, with a hint of sweetness and a satisfying amount of soup.
What about suburban-chic Din Tai Fung (9724 SW Washington Square Rd, Tigard)? The dumplings here, more petite than the others for one-bite consumption, are the prettiest by far, the folds twisting like a blooming flower. The shredded ginger and black vinegar are all in place, the dough is thin yet firmly holds the dumplings together. Bite into the dumplings and—where’s the soup? Was that last dumpling a fluke? Everything feels muted in an attempt to class things up, like a $400 Tory Burch patterned shirt you’d find a few doors down at Nordstrom.
Call me unrefined, but I like my dumplings a little closer to their humble homemade origins—a little rough around the edges, bigger, extra soupy, a fold missing here or there. If we took the exterior and dipping sauce of Din Tai Fung, the exuberant soupiness of Szechuan Chef, and the size of a plump Duck House dumpling, we might have perfection. What we can guarantee is that you can find happiness—comforting, soupy happiness—in any of these dumplings. Eat them often, and eat them piping hot.