Some of the most nondescript places have the best food. This is the lesson I’ve learned in my lifelong quest for good food. For example, a restaurant in a rundown strip mall will have better Indian cuisine than a gourmet restaurant that you have to wait weeks to get into. Or an order-at-the-counter taco shack with minimal signage will serve the best fish tacos you’ve ever eaten.
That’s how I feel about Soup Dumplings STL. I went there a couple weeks ago on Friday night after work. I’d read a lot about them–they’re getting glowing reviews in local food publications–so I wanted to see what all the hype was about.
Soup Dumplings STL is located in the middle of an old strip mall in University City, a St. Louis suburb near the city. If you pull up on a rainy Friday night like I did, you might be tempted to drive away. The parking lot is dark and nothing about the complex persuades you to linger.
But driving away would be a mistake because the second you walk through the door of Soup Dumplings STL, you feel at home. The interiors are bright and welcoming and a woman, who I assume is one of the owners, smiles at you from behind the counter.
I decided to order the pork dumplings, or xiao long bao. After I sat down to wait for them, I heard the man next to me tell his date that the pork dumplings were better than the chicken. That confirmed my decision.
The owner brought the dumplings to my table in a steaming wooden basket and set it down in front of me. I’d been observing how other people were eating the dumplings because I’d never tried them before. I saw people eating them different ways, though. Some seemed to dip them in a bowl of soup, others speared them with a chopstick and nibbled at them. There didn’t seem to be one technique.
“Do you know how to eat soup dumplings?” the owner asked me.
“No,” I said, blushing.
She was completely non-judgmental. “You take the chopsticks, you poke holes in the sides of the dumpling, and then you press it to let soup out,” she said, demonstrating with one of my dumplings.
After she left the table, I tried it myself. Admittedly, all I wanted to do was pick up the dumpling with my hand and bite into it. But something told me if I ate it the *right* way, or at least, the way she demonstrated, I’d be in for the best experience. So I balanced the dumpling in a ladle in a soup bowl, poked two holes in it with the end of my chopsticks, and press on the top to let out a little soup. Then I grabbed the dumpling with the chopsticks and put the entire thing in my mouth.
For the next couple seconds, I transcended reality. I felt the salty, rich broth rush into my mouth, and tasted chewy, tender pieces of pork. The dumpling wrapper, steamed to perfection, seemed to melt on my tongue. I almost started crying but I held back my tears. I refused to be the person who cried into their dumplings.
Still, I was floored. I ate the next five dumplings in a state of ecstasy. I barely noticed my surroundings and I didn’t pay attention to people who were staring at me (because, when you’re eating alone, someone always stares). It was just me and the pork dumplings. I guess the only thing you can call it is love.
After I downed six dumplings, I went back up to the counter. The woman looked at me questioningly. “I want to try the chicken dumplings.” She burst out laughing. Does anyone stop at one basket, though? I felt like I could have eaten three.
I finished the chicken dumplings and realized that the man next to me was right: Pork was better. Still, I felt content knowing that I tried them both.
I realized something important while dining at Soup Dumplings. I usually dine in places where I’m familiar with the food. I’ve tried a lot of cuisines but sometimes I stumble across one I haven’t had before.
It’s important to leave your comfort zone when it comes to food. You could be missing out on the best xian long bao of your life and you didn’t know it.
And, if you’re lucky, there will be people to help you along the way. What I’ve learned about food is, the people who make it are very excited to share it. They want you to have a good experience because they’re passionate about their craft. It’s more than a meal; it’s a gift.