There's a scant list of Chinese words that non-Chinese people sometimes learn, usually having to do with food. The average American knows "lo mein," "bok choy," and even "cha siew bao," but I think another one that's making its way out of anonymity is "xiao long bao."
Xiao long bao are Shanghainese soup dumplings. It's pretty much what you would imagine when you hear "soup dumpling": there's a meaty filling and a soupy broth inside a dumpling wrapper. My cousin says that Joe's Shanghai has some of the best in the city, so he treated us to some xiao long bao there.
Joe's Shanghai is a small restaurant on Pell Street in Chinatown that is infamous for long waits and famous for its xiao long bao. I kid you not, we waited for an hour and a half on the narrow sidewalk for a table. It was worth it, though. When you first step inside the restaurant, your nose is filled with this almost-offensive sour smell: vinegar. I didn't realize this at first, and I thought "ew something is rancid in here, I think they deserve a C in restaurant rating..." but it turns out that each table gets several dishes of vinegar and soy sauce to dip dumplings in.
We ordered two servings of xiao long bao, mantou, scallion pancakes, a cold chicken dish, a cold tofu dish, fried rice, and pan-fried noodles with beef. All the food was delicious and flavorful, but had my cousin not ordered for the whole table, I might have chosen some other options. Maybe next time.
The xiao long bao is served in stacked bamboo steamers, on a bed of wilted cabbage. You get a set of tongs to carefully lift the dumpling out and into a waiting soup spoon. Use the soup spoon to catch the broth inside, but you have to be really careful because it's bound to be really hot. Then, apparently eaters of xiao long bao make a game out of it: the person to most neatly eat the dumpling, without dripping anything on the plate, wins. The soup was exceptionally hot, and the meat inside was a bit seafood-y tasting. I suspect some dried shrimp in the pork stuffing or something. The dumpling skin oddly stuck to my lips as I tried to gently suck out the soup while keeping the dumpling in one piece. I like to think eventually I got more skilled at eating them.
Next, we had the mantou, these little balls of dense fried dough dipped in condensed milk. I had this dish when I was younger, in my dad's restaurant. Joe's Shanghai mixed in some coconut in with their condensed milk, resulting in this cloyingly sweet, yet divine, dip that I almost wanted to slurp directly from the dish.
I have also had scallion pancakes before, and Joe's Shanghai's did not disappoint. My sister told us this sad story about her college's dining hall attempting to make scallion pancakes, but the product was literally pancakes with scallions in them.... A good Chinese scallion pancake is a fried pancake, greasy and crispy, dotted with scallions. The pancakes are definitely savory, not like typical pancakes. They are most likely soooo bad for you...but usually I find that things that are bad for you taste the best.
The next two dishes were cold, oddly enough. The chicken was simply steamed and drenched in a wine-y sauce. The tofu fooled me: I thought it was beef at first. The texture of the tofu was dried and more like tofu skin, cooked in a savory dark sauce. When my cousin said it was tofu, I definitely did a double take when I realized the "meat" I thought I was eating was actually porous. How funny!
Finally, the pan-fried noodles. I'm a big fan of pan-fried noodles with chicken and broccoli. Usually it's made of thin egg noodles dropped in a fryer or something so it looks like a bird's nest: stiff and crunchy. Then, the noodles get a topping of thick sauce and whatever meat and veggie you want on top of it. The noodles at Joe's Shanghai were different, though, thicker and more porous. Although it was good - crispy at times, soaking up the flavorful sauce at others - I prefer the other versions.
Overall, I really enjoyed the family-style dining and interactive eating experience at Joe's Shanghai. If you can stand to wait a ridiculous amount of time before dinner, you should definitely try it out. It will undoubtedly help your appetite and start you salivating.