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Trip Report Having Fun XLBing with Shanghainese in Walnut Creek, CA

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Shanghainese and I have been XLBing a few times over the years. She’s the expert and I’m just the trail-along, enjoying her expertise, eating, and learning a lot.

What’s an XLB? It’s short for Xiao Lung Bao – Little Bamboo Container Dumpling, and it’s a Shanghai specialty. There are four elements to a good XLB:

a) The meat dumpling, which is usually pork but could be seafood or a combo. The meat dumpling has to be tasty.
b) The “skin” that the dumpling is wrapped in – it has to be made at-the-moment, not some store-bought, machine-made wrapper and it has to be of a certain thickness – not too thick to leave a mushy doughy taste nor too thin to let all the juice out.
c) The juice or sauce or soup inside the dumpling. This juice has to taste good, be sufficient to bathe and keep the meat dumpling moist AND it has to stay inside the dumpling after cooking
d) The dipping sauce – this has to consist of a special vinegar called “Chinkiang” vinegar (Chinkiang is the province in which Shanghai is located). This vinegar is dark and has its own particular taste.

Shanghainese, being from Shanghai, is naturally the expert in how an XLB should taste.

The restaurants: these were selected for this particular taste-testing trip by Shanghainese. Since we had tried the XLBs in several restaurants in San Francisco, in San Mateo, and in Silicon Valley on previous taste-testing trips, she had selected two in Walnut Creek in the East Bay for this trip. The two restaurants were the Modern China Café and the OI-C Café, both on N. Main Street and within a block of each other.

1) The Modern China Café is an Asian fusion restaurant. It has only one real Shanghai dish – the XLB. The rest were predominantly Cantonese dishes, so we made do by ordering one order of XLB, one order of Bean Curd Skin Rolls with a Pork and Shrimp filling, and one order of Crispy Calamari. The rolls were quite good as was the Calamari (although my memory tells me that the calamari at Cha Cha Cha’s is better).
The XLB turned out to be very mixed. First off, they stuck to the bottom of the bamboo container so they lost all their juice when the bottom skin broke. The skin was OK on the bottom but too thick on top. The meat dumpling all by itself was quite good. The vinegar was RED (what the heck is going on here?)
The tea: they have barley tea here! Yahhhh! That’s one of my favorite teas!

Bonus review: the bathroom. I, uh, felt like I had entered a brothel. Shanghainese went and checked it out and she said that there are now places in China where the Chinese nouveau riche go and they are set up like this, ergo, the name “Modern China Café”. Okey Dokey. Still feels like a muted version of those fancied up brothels that I had to accompany my colleagues to in China.

We went for a walk around the downtown of Walnut Creek and saw the creek that gives the town its name as well as a very nice park with a small pergola. Walnut Creek has developed into a really expensive East Bay town with upscale stores and so many different kinds of little eateries which Shanghainese said will be full to overflowing at night. After a stroll around the park, we backtracked to Main Street and the OI-C Cafe.

2) The OI-C Café. I asked the waiter what the name of the café stood for and he shrugged his shoulders. The implication is that it stands for “Oh, I see” – but please don’t quote me on this! Since we had walked off a bit of the first lunch, we felt bold enough to order one order of XLB and the only other Shanghai dish on the menu, which was a full plate of noodles. The rest of the menu was even more of a mishmash of Asian dishes than the menu at the Modern China Cafe. Not only were there Thai noodles, Hong Kong style noodles, but also “foo kin” noodles. When I asked Shanghainese what she thought the “foo kin” stood for, she shrugged her shoulders. What more could one ask for? A restaurant with a mystery name featuring mystery dishes!

The three XLBs came in their own individual aluminum foil containers, which is the best way to retain the juice (I believe those containers are a Cantonese invention, but can’t be sure). These dumplings were about half the size of those at the Modern China Café. The meat dumpling was so sweet it felt like Winnie the Pooh had accidentally tipped his honey jar onto the mixture (this is supposed to be a savory dish!). The skin was OK as was the juice but there wasn’t enough juice. The vinegar was RED (again!).

The noodles – these were something called “Shanghai thick noodles”. They are thicker than ordinary noodles and have to be freshly made at the time of the order, not store-bought. The noodles were authentic enough and there was so much of it in the one order, we couldn’t finish it all. Shanghainese liked that they were made with spinach but said that the onion should have been green onions instead of yellow onion. These noodles tasted OK, but they lacked “punch” and seemed to be watered down for the “modern” crowd of Walnut Creek.

Second bonus review: The OI-C bathroom. If the Modern China Café restroom was done in flaming reds with pictures of beautiful ladies, the OI-C bathroom went the other way and was dark and somber. I wondered if they hadn’t gotten the ideas from pictures of dungeons.

The prices at both restaurants were pretty reasonable.

We walked a bit more and then separated to get home before the afternoon Bay Area rush hour would start for both of us.

Downtown Walnut Creek is really a great area to go for a leisurely stroll and has streets filled with small boutique stores and a gathering of small restaurants with international flavors. There is no recession/depression visible in Walnut Creek. It is a prosperous town still on the way up with plenty of name stores. It gives the air of a younger Palo Alto or Saratoga, with a distinct feeling that there are lots of young professionals in high tech who are responsible for making it a mini-boom town. Our conclusion about the restaurants we tried is that they are more fusion than authentic and the taste of their food caters more to the “modern” crowd rather than to the traditional crowd who need authentic tasting Chinese food. The food is good, not great. Our servers at both restaurants were very pleasant, which added to our enjoyment.

It’s always fun to be with Shanghainese and we had so much to catch up on, especially after her three-month trip to China. She has an absolutely adorable-looking baby niece! I look forward to our next XLB trip!

Shanghainese, please correct or add in anything I’ve forgotten.

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