Portland, Oregon is a foodie haven, where the gastronomic options run the gamut between lowly taco food truck to the finest Michelin star restaurant. And then there’s the neighborhood joint that one comes back to again and again.
Widely considered as serving the best soup dumplings on the West Coast, I chose to celebrate my 50th birthday at XLB. All of my foodie friends recommend it, so you know you’re in good hands here. And it’s affordable, to boot! For those culinary aficionados in the know, XLB stands for xiaolongbao in the Chinese language, which in English translates to “small basket buns.” These glorious little pockets of heaven take the form of paper-thin dough filled with meat and steaming broth.
This is the best place (and by some accounts the only place) in Portland to get an XLB.
Perhaps one reason why authentic XLB is hard to find is that those little suckers are notoriously tricky to make. Head Chef Jasper Shen spent many years perfecting the craft of dumpling-making using a deft twist when shaping the dumplings before this place opened up back in 2017. The result? An tiny masterpiece with impossibly savory, steaming broth and an herbal concoction with a vinegar-shallot dipping sauce that is on-point every single time.
And the savory does not stop there. My go-to dish when visiting XLB is not the dumplings themselves, but their incredible Shanghai-style pork and shrimp udon dish. It is savory personified. One hearty bowl easily carries me through two meals. Pair that with one of the tasty draft pints of beer or a refreshing herbal tea and you’ll be rolling home for a well-deserved nap.
Other items on the menu are small plates of sauteed greens, steam buns, stir-fries, and other authentic Chinese street food. Perfect for sharing.
Pre-pandemic, the dining space was cramped, yet inviting. There was nary a time when I walked in and all tables were not filled. Indeed, hoping beyond hope that by the time I placed my order at the counter, a table would open up. It almost always did. XLB’s open kitchen allows patrons to see the magic as it happens.
It is a casual yet fast-paced atmosphere in a clean-lined hall of ironized Asiatic décor, complete with Qing dynasty lights and kung fu paintings. Now they have expanded their space to a lovely outdoor setup, al fresco, where diners can enjoy the soft Oregon breezes along with their meal.
How to Properly Eat an XLB
XLB’s have a thinner skin, so there’s a trick to getting it from the bamboo steamer onto your spoon without breaking it open. Simply place your Chinese spoon close to the dumpling, then grab it close to the knot with your chopsticks and gently lift it from the steamer onto the spoon. This, of course, requires you to be somewhat adept at using chopsticks.
Careful! I know you want to gobble up the steaming goodness, but try to resist the temptation to stuff them in your mouth. If you do, you are in for a rude awakening of scalding hot broth. One must keep in mind that this treat is basically a little pouch of superheated stock. The proper way is to let the steam out for a few seconds, then indulge.
According to experts, there are two ways to do this. When this dish is served in a fine dining restaurant, you are supplied with a bigger spoon so you can take a smaller bite along the side. The idea is to let the broth drain into the spoon and you can sip it daintily. But in more relaxed places such as our Portland establishment, the practice is to nip off the top of the dumpling, give it a moment or two to cool, then not-so-daintily suck the juices directly out. In my opinion, that’s much more fun. Then once the initial danger of getting burned has passed, you can devour the rest of it without fear of retribution.
XLB Portland is located in a trendy part of town in North Portland (or as the locals say, ‘NoPo’) with so many other great shops and restaurants nearby. When you’re here, make a day of it walking up and down North Williams Street. You won’t be disappointed.