Who doesn’t love a dumpling? Every culture has their own version, from kreplach in Israel to pelmeni in Russia, empanadas in Argentina and gyoza in Japan. Stuff wrapped in dough? The entire world is on board.
But soup in dumplings? That’s a whole new level — a level that until recently, Portland was largely without, at least for those of us without a grandma from Shanghai or an insider’s knowledge of the metro area’s far-flung Chinese dining spots.
Enter XLB, the bright and airy newish spot on a hip, ever-expanding stretch of North Williams Street. The name stands for Xiao Long Bao, which translates as (you guessed it) soup dumplings, pockets of dough filled with a punchy bite of pork, ginger and garlic, plus a hit of warming, steamy pork stock. I went first on a date night with my husband, and couldn’t stop thinking about those dumplings, which come with a bracing vinegar and pickled ginger dipping sauce. At the first possible opportunity, we went back, this time with the kids in tow.
It didn’t begin auspiciously — we rolled in at 5:45 pm, and found a longish line, nearly stretching out the door, and every table full. We almost bailed, but the kids were salivating over the menu, so we stuck it out. We made it to the front of the line by 6 pm, just a minute or two too late for the nifty happy hour menu, which slashes some prices on the main menu, and adds kid-friendly options like spring rolls. (Pro tip: If you too encounter a wait, there’s a bottomless tub of fortune cookies at the register. Let the kids indulge.)
By the time we had put in our order, a table had opened up, which was lucky as the food comes fast, like not-quite-but-almost fast food level fast. Maybe that’s why there were kids at every second table (plus high chairs stacked by the register); waiting a long time for food with hungry kiddos is excruciating so places where the food is a) good and b) fast are in high demand.
First to arrive were our two orders of the namesake soup dumplings, which were just as out-of-this-world-good as the first time we’d tried them, but required a little tutelage with the kids. You scoop them up with a spoon (carefully, so the broth doesn’t spill before it even gets to your mouth), then use a chopstick to pierce the dumpling skin. Blow on the broth to cool it down, then slurp it all up. Repeat. Yum, all around.
The rest of the food doesn’t come close to those heights, unfortunately. The sesame noodles with tofu we ordered for my vegetarian daughter were gloppy and too tahini-heavy, and the mushroom-chive steamed buns were limp and not particularly flavorful (though the accompanying ginger/garlic/soy dipping sauce packed a wallop.) The $5 portion of popcorn chicken we’d ordered for my son felt too heavy on the five-spice powder even for an adult palate, and the stir-fry udon noodles with pork and shrimp left us feeling greasy and overfull. Instead, just order more soup dumplings — all the soup dumplings — and a simple side of sauteed Chinese greens, rice and housemade pickled cucumbers — and chow down.
Other nice touches: bottomless and free jasmine tea refills, the aforementioned fortune cookies, and the gold-leaf Chinese zodiac characters on the wallpaper — I’ll take any excuse to remind my twins that they were born in the year of the rat (which is why I’ve always lovingly referred to them as “ratfinks.”)
The bottom line: Go early for happy hour, and don’t skimp on the soup dumplings.
XLB: 4090 N Williams Ave., xlbpdx.com.
Divine Dumpling: Other places in PDX to get your soup dumpling fix.
Taste of Sichuan: This suburban mainstay was one of the first in the Portland area to offer up dumplings. 16261 NW Cornell Rd., Beaverton.
Wei Wei: A Taste of Taiwan: At this small Sellwood storefront, the soup dumplings are panfried for a Taiwanese twist. 7835 SE 13th Ave., Ste 102.
For more kid-friendly restaurant reviews visit: pdxparent.com/family-supper