By Jonathan Gold
Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
1:26 PM CDT, April 20, 2012
Have you ever been frightened by a dumpling? Truly, genuinely scared? Because the juicy crab and pork buns at Wang Xing Ji — smoking-hot dumplings the size of water balloons, sneakily full of boiling juice — could probably be weaponized.
You could deploy them as grenades, I'm pretty sure, lobbing the heavy spheroids over battlements. Or you could employ them as sub-lethal projectiles, splatting them into the enemy at will, although the sticky broth is undoubtedly prohibited in an obscure codicil of the Geneva Conventions. If you were on the other end of such an attack you would die happy, with sweet crab and pork juices trickling down your cheek — but you would still die. Does battlefield protocol in such cases include the administering of vinegar and fresh ginger to the fallen along with last rites? I would hope so.
In happier circumstances, you would encounter the juicy crab and pork buns in their natural habitat, the new San Gabriel dumpling house Wang Xing Ji. A single specimen fills out an entire small steamer and must be approached cautiously, as if an undefused bomb.
The first time you run across one of these things, which is a mutantly large xiao long bao, you may try to lift it with a soup spoon, the way you would an ordinary soup dumpling, and it will tear itself apart with its own floppy weight. Or you could preëmptively attack it from above, but you will also fail, and the broth will seep through the steamer's perforations into the saucer strategically positioned below.
If you try to lift it from the top, like LBJ picking up his beagle by the ears, the dumpling will collapse. If you try to work in from the side, the dumpling will collapse. But it is OK to pick up the saucer and lap at the juice like a cat. When it comes to dumplings, shame is an unaffordable luxury.
Wang Xing Ji is the first American branch of a popular dumpling house in Wuxi, a lakeside city about 45 minutes out of Shanghai. Actually, Wang Xing Ji is the dumpling house in Wuxi, almost a century old, the one restaurant every guidebook seems to mention. Wuxi cooking is sometimes considered one of the 14 essential styles of Chinese cooking, although it seems mostly by people from Wuxi.
The dishes are famous for their sweetness — on the menu at the San Gabriel Wang Xing Ji, it is the unsweetened dumplings, of which there are not many, that are marked with cautionary stars. In addition to dumplings, there is wonton, a giveaway bouillon astonishing in its clarity and scallion-tinged purity of flavor, and a really good version of Wuxi spareribs.
To order, you tick off items on a kind of checklist as you might at a fancy dim sum restaurant or the dumpling specialist Din Tai Fung. The menu is a fairly straightforward document, although the way it is structured may lead you to order far more than you can eat: cold slivered pressed tofu and sweet soup with rice balls; complexly smoky cold fish and crab wonton soup; pork belly fried rice and blistery string beans cooked with chiles in a screaming-hot wok.
Specialties are marked with thumbs-up signs. Spicy dishes are marked with chiles. It is interesting to order the regular-size pork dumplings, xiao long bao, in both the unsweetened and sugared versions — the XLB may not be as precisely machined as the ones at Din Tai Fung, but the thicker wrappers are soulful somehow, engineered to absorb just enough black vinegar. The idea of sweet pork may be vaguely repellent, but the traditional XLB wins every time. The sweetness brings out the slight wild flavors of the pork and oniony seasonings; the unsweetened ones seem colorless and bland.
Hand-tossed crispy scallion pancake? You're going to want one (it is crisp as advertised), as well as at least one order of the Salt & Pepper Crispy Cake, which is a pingpong-ball-sized baked dumpling with a pleasantly glutinous filling. The slightly cloddish noodle soups? Maybe not. A smoky glass of plum juice, just the regular kind you can buy in any Chinese supermarket but somehow intensified into a Scotch-like presence by the sweet food, is what you want to drink.
Eventually you will notice the gaily colored boba straw served alongside the monster crab and pork bun, sharpened at the bottom to facilitate puncture, and at once, its purpose will be clear. You will feel slightly foolish, slightly vampiric, but you will sip hot crab juice through a straw, as if it were a milkshake and you were a teenager at Pop's Chocklit Shop. It is the only way. Your shirt and your dignity will be spared.
Wang Xing Ji
The first American branch of a popular dumpling house in Wuxi, a city just outside of Shanghai, offers giant pork dumplings bursting with flavor, as well as smoked fish, crab and pork buns, and spare ribs
140 Valley Blvd., No. 211, San Gabriel, (626) 307-1188
Dumplings, wonton and cold dishes, $4.95-$8.95
Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, dinner 5 to 9 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout.