Xiaolongbao, the Shanghai-style soup dumplings that have reached cult status in recent years, are tricky to construct. Their thin, manifold skin has to be capable of containing not just a pork filling, but the slowly liquefying broth inside as well. They’re a dumpling that’s eluded many restaurants in town, and for a time, they eluded Jasper Shen. Now, after practicing his dumpling-folding technique with a pop-up at his former restaurant, Aviary, and making plenty of visits to venerable Seattle dumpling temple Din Tai Fung, he’s steaming xiaolongbao to order at his two-month-old North Portland restaurant. They’re already good, almost certainly better than any others on the eastside. With its lightbox menu of dumplings, steamed bao, stir-fried noodles and greens, XLB addresses Portland’s noticeable lack of traditional Chinese comfort food, though there’s still some dialing in to be done.
The dish: If you’re going to name your restaurant after a dumpling, they better be good. XLB’s often are. Shen’s xiaolongbao arrive fresh from the steamer, 10 petite purses of broth wrapped in thin, pleated dough. On one visit they were perfect, with a thin skin that didn’t break and a tiny nub on top for easy pick-up. Another trip was more disheartening, with several XLB tearing, spilling their salty broth into the steamer basket. A few other dishes had frustrating foibles. Like the dumplings, the pan-fried noodles were too salty. Bao were over-steamed. Greens were soggy instead of crisp, perhaps sauteed in a too-cool wok. But XLB’s crunchy, lip-numbing Szechuan green beans were just right, showing promise of a brighter future.
The takeaway: At their best, XLB’s titular xiaolongbao have no rivals on the east side. Other dishes remain works in progress.
Sample menu: Xiaolongbao ($10), steamed buns ($8-$9), noodles ($9-$10), seasonal, sauteed vegetables ($8)
Drinks: Local beer, wine and cider on tap ($5-$11), Chinese and Taiwanese bottled beer ($4-$7), non-alcoholic sodas and Asian drinks ($2-$4)
Go: To scratch your soup dumpling itch.
Details: Lunch and dinner daily; no reservations; disabled access; 4090 N. Williams Ave., 503-841-5373, xlbpdx.com
— Samantha Bakall