Ginger & Fork owner Mary Li may have been born in Hong Kong, but she knows a thing or two about Shanghainese soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao. When she decided she wanted to include them on the menu at her Heights restaurant, she advertised in a local Chinese-language newspaper and began auditioning chefs. What she experienced was a dumpling-centric scene from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Of her two finalists, "both made the pork decent," Li recalls. But one rolled the dough too thick. "The other lady made them so thin they broke."
Dissatisfied with her options in Houston, Li then placed an ad in a Chinese paper in New York. She got a reply from a friend of a friend, a Shanghai native who has specialized in making xiaolongbao for her whole career, and has done so in New York for the last 16 years. "I'm talking to her about bringing her here," Li says, by way of explanation of why she can't identify the cook by name, at the risk of the woman's current employer finding out. The solution for now? Li has her secret chef make the dumplings, then freeze and ship them to Houston.
Sounds like a lot of effort, right? It's worth it. Despite the food miles, the soup dumplings are among the best we've had in the city. In them, Li has finally found her "just right" skin; pliable and not too thick, but firm enough to hold a surprising glut of sticky, collagenous broth. The pork balls submerged in the soup are so fatty that they melt with each bite almost as if they, too, are liquid.
The dumplings are served as part of Sunday brunch as well as on a printed page of new "off-menu" specials. Other dishes on that roster include the fried pork ribs above, which get their "gold-rubbed" moniker from a coating of duck egg yolk that takes on a sandy texture when cooked. The pork belly served in steamed buns results in trimmings served as uncommon "burnt ends." Perhaps best of all are a trio of mushroom dishes: enokis in ginger broth, a filet of fried Atlantic cod in gingery mushroom sauce and diced filet mignon served in a dusky sauce with a mix of exotic 'shrooms.
But those, of course, are supporting players to the soupy lead.