The way we are used to eating dumplings is very simplistic to say the least, soft dough-like exteriors surrounding hunks of meat or vegetables. They can be eaten by hand or with chopsticks, but very rarely do we find ourselves eating them with a spoon.
I recently went to a restaurant in North Portland named XLB which is short for it’s signature dish “xiao long bao” or Shanghai soup dumplings.
It’s a small narrow restaurant with gold silhouettes of chinese zodiac that pepper the darkened cobalt blue walls. An open kitchen sizzles and crackles with the passion of each chef. They don’t take reservations, in fact, in order to even get a seat, you will need to order something up front.
It’s all worth it, however, for their casual dining experience. XLB only has a few dishes, but their specialty is the aforementioned dumpling (“xiao long bao,” hence the name XLB) filled with a gelatinized broth.
When they steam the dumpling, the broth liquifies and becomes soup. At first glance you would think to use a pair of chopsticks; however, upon opening the dumpling you will be greeted to hot, savory soup. It is served with both chopsticks and soup spoons.
To eat it you must first use chopsticks to pinch the top of the dumpling just enough to grab it. Then with a spoon in hand carefully place it down into it. It is suggested you bite a small hole and suck the soup out. You can also let the soup drain into your spoon and then eat it it whole.
While “xiao long bao” are their specialty, I was fortunate enough to taste some of XLB’s other dishes, such as the Shanghai noodles. They were soft noodles with seared shrimp, ground pork, Chinese greens, and spices all cooked until slightly caramelized. For my palate it is a tad bit salty, so I suggest that you add a couple squeezes of lemon juice to it, to counteract the saltiness.
The five spice popcorn chicken is also good. It is chicken chunks fried in a mixture of rice flour and five spice until golden and crispy. It is served with Thai basil that has been deep fried without a batter until translucent.
XLB doesn’t really have a fountain drink dispenser, so you will need to get water and hot tea from a station near the door, however, you can order drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
XLB’s vibe is, to put it bluntly, very much like Portland. It’s complex and there isn’t much similarity to other chains. It is very much an experience that makes you feel welcome and appreciated. XLB is not your stereotypical Chinese restaurant.