Eating food in a restaurant rarely is a dangerous endeavor. Outside the odd places that prepare fugu – aka puffer fish – or serve imprudently foraged wild mushrooms, most dining experiences are generally harmless. That's not the case when it comes to Chinese soup dumplings, innocuous looking things that can melt the skin right off your chin when not consumed correctly. Filled with ground meat and molten-hot soup, these juicy little care packages definitely require some finesse. But eaten correctly, they quickly become habit forming.
Soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, have popped up around town during the occasional dim sum feast, but no place has mastered and marketed these delicacies as well as LJ Shanghai, a newcomer in Cleveland's Asiatown neighborhood. Open for just two months, this Chinese noodle house has been absolutely besieged by savvy diners who recognize quality xiao long bao when they see and taste them. LJ's are brilliant: tucked inside the delicate housemade wrapper is a dollop of meat swimming in intensely flavored broth. A half dozen ($5) arrive in a small bamboo steamer basket. The trick is to carefully move a dumpling from basket to spoon without tearing the fragile shell and losing all the soup. Once safely on the spoon, the dumpling can be nibbled or poked to release the soup so that it can be slurped. Ginger-infused black vinegar is on hand to cut the richness of the filling.
Those superior dumplings are joined by equally satisfying noodle dishes and a handful of recently added meat dishes. It was here that I discovered the wonton soup ($8) of my dreams, nearly a dozen plump shrimp and pork (or pork and veggie, $6) dumplings bobbing in a large bowl of clear, rich broth. Unlike the ungainly wontons that fortify most bowls around town, these elegant little clouds are light as air and an absolute pleasure to eat. The soup gets a briny boost from tiny dried shrimp and is garnished with scallions and seaweed.
"Electric" is the only way I can describe a bowl of pork and salted vegetable noodle soup ($8). Thin, bouncy noodles in chicken broth are capped with chopped pickled greens studded with hot peppers that really light up this dish. A small amount of shredded pork bolsters the bowl.
But the granddaddy of all soups at LJ Shanghai is the Szechuan-style spicy beef noodle soup ($10), a dish perfectly suited to Cleveland's long, frigid winters. This seemingly bottomless bowl is loaded with thick, chewy noodles, tender braised beef and steamed baby bok choy, but it's the lip-tingling spicy-savory broth that really warms the cockles. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Shanghai-style scallion noodles ($5), a dish that is positively austere in its presentation. A simple dressing of soy and roasted scallion oil is all that stands between you and the perfectly cooked noodles. This dish is so humble, in fact, that our server felt the need to warn us about it when placing the order. No warning needed.
At prices in the $5 to $8 range, it's worthwhile to sample some of the more adventurous dishes on the full-color pictorial menu, even if they don't all turn out the way you might expect. We took a flyer on the spicy duck neck ($5) and while we probably won't order them again, we did enjoy nibbling the small amount of spicy meat off the bony neck segments. Aggressively spiced beef tripe and tendon ($8), on the other hand, is a wild ride of flavors and textures, with tender tripe, chewy tendon, crunchy peanuts and nutty sesame seeds all vying for attention. Tart, crisp and garlicky cucumbers ($5) act as a nice compliment to heavy, intensely flavored soups.
Expect a delicious plate of messy finger food when you order the sweet and sour pork ribs ($10). The small bone-in pieces are coated in a gelatinous, well-balanced sauce with sugar and vinegar that is nothing like the bright orange goo that glazes Americanized sweet and sour Chinese dishes. Underneath is tender, succulent braised pork. You won't find crispy skin on the braised duck ($10), but you will find lush dark meat served with a sweet soy glaze.
LJ Shanghai took over the spot on Superior that was briefly occupied by Saigon Grille, which closed a few years back. The owner, whose initials are LJ, is always onsite, eager to explain the various dishes, and quick to compliment one's chopstick skills. The service is swift, the portions robust, the prices modest and the surroundings modern and comfortable. But it's the food – oh, those wicked little soup dumplings – that will keep us coming back on a regular basis.