The dumplings at Qing Xiang Yuan Dumpling in Chinatown require patience. Not that it takes long to get your order or devour an inordinate number of them. You simply must wait until they cool slightly, because while they appear at first glance to be nothing more than regular Chinese dumplings — the kind of ubiquitous offering available at most local Chinese takeout joints — they hide a succulent secret that sets them apart from the packed crowd.
Each one holds a scorching hot shot of liquid, ready to erupt when your teeth puncture the wrapper. This comes as a bit of a surprise, mostly because they don’t look like what most Americans would consider traditional soup dumplings. Complete understanding of the wide world of Chinese dumplings probably requires an advanced degree (and I’d like to enroll), but when I think of soup dumplings I picture the swirled rounds of xiao long bao. Instead, these crescent-shaped, neatly pleated offerings are jiao zi. The cooks at Qing Ziang Yuan Dumpling just happen to stuff their wrappers with a moister filling than most, creating the soupy sensation.
You’ll probably forget all this and dig in the moment a dozen hit your table, torching the top of your mouth with searing hot liquid. But find the inner strength to wait a minute or two, and you’ll encounter some of the most distinctive dumplings around.
For the past year, if you wanted to sample these intriguing bites, you needed to descend into the food court in the lower level of Chinatown’s Richland Center—a drab, windowless basement filled with mostly empty tables and a few genuinely worthy restaurant stalls. There you’d find Qing Xiang Yuan Dumpling, where you could watch workers fill dumplings to order and sell them for ridiculously low prices. Luckily, the operation moved upstairs a few months ago, so you can admire these adorable little offerings in the clear light of the day. The new space is open and buzzing, with waiters rushing order after order of dumplings to awaiting guests.
For such a straightforward shop, get ready for a head-spinning number of choices.
Do you want the dumplings steamed, boiled or uncooked? (The latter is only if you want to take them home to prepare — I feel confident that eating raw dumplings is not a thing.) The boiled dumplings are slightly softer and wetter, ending up looking not unlike a plate of pierogis. The steamed are more delicate, while also holding their shape and liquid a little better. Go with the steamed.
As for the fillings, there are more varieties than any normal person will have a chance to try. I counted 35 on my recent visit, which doesn’t include any of the other appetizers or grilled items also on the menu. Sure, you’ll find familiar options like ground pork and cabbage, and shrimp, pork and leek, but that’s only the start. How about sea whelks, leek and egg, or lamb and coriander? (Both of which, I should add, are fantastic.)
Considering a dozen make a decent lunch, trying one of each in a single visit would require a truly herculean appetite. To make matters more frustrating, you can only buy them by the dozen, so sampling the lot would require a Taylor Swift-sized squad of your closest friends.
This explains why the waitress gave me such a funny look when I ordered four varieties with only one friend for support. When the four dozen dumplings hit the table minutes later, nearly filling our entire four-top table, I realized we’d never even come close to finishing them all. We did try our best.
Start every visit with an order of the lamb and coriander dumplings ($9.99). The gamey lamb mixture gushes on the first bite, while fragrant coriander floats around the edges. On the other end of the spectrum, the sea whelk (a kind of snail), leek and egg dumplings ($12.00) have a refreshingly subtle and clean seafood flavor. Plus, when is the last time you had whelk? But you really can’t go wrong. Even the pork and pickled cabbage ($7.99) managed to impress, with a pop of the fermented vegetable lightening up each meaty bite.
Whichever filling you choose, the mildly spiced dumplings enjoy taking a dip in some sauces. Squirt on a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar for some salt and acid, or go all in and dabble on as much chili oil as you can muster for heat.
Despite all my warnings, don’t wait too long before eating. The dumplings go from steamy and moist to cool and soggy after about a half-hour, so avoid takeout. But that in-between time — after the incendiary liquid calms somewhat to a warm soup temperature — is when you really want to dig in.
Qing Xiang Yuan Dumpling, 2002 S. Wentworth Ave., 312-799-1118.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.