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Nearly a year and a half ago the omnibus restaurant Hing Kee surprised everyone by stationing a dedicated noodle-puller in its front window. This is a place whose menu was, and continues to be, worryingly all over the map: Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and a sushi menu that included things like "sushi pizza" and "double punk rock & roll." And yet it hired Chef Liu Chang Ming, a specialized craftsman whose mesmerizing noodle dough cat's-cradle act was put prominently on display for all to see, an investment that surely pulls in aimless wanderers of the Chinatown Mall every day.
And as of a month and a half ago, they've got another draw: a dedicated soup-dumpling ringer.
Soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, are the holy grail of dumplings in Chicago. When they're prepared correctly—and nobody really does them correctly—they're parcels of delicate pleated dough containing meatballs suspended in piping hot broth. You pluck one from the steamer by its topknot and position it in a puddle of black vinegar on your soup spoon. Then you bite off the topknot and slurp up the precious liquor inside before consuming the remains. But all too often the dough is too tough or springs a leak before you get it into position—or any of a dozen other things go wrong to spoil the pleasant anticipation.
That never happens at Nan Xiang in Queens, or, more globally, Din Tai Fung—which I'll wager set the two highest standards in North America (outside of Richmond, B.C.). In fact, Chinatown's Tao Ran Ju poached its dumpling maker from Din Tai Fung and when that happened Tao Ran Ju set the standard in Chicago. That is, until the place shut down recently for "remodeling," as the sign on the door says. Sadly, the closure is permanent, at least according to a server at Spring World, whose owner James An opened TRJ two years ago.
So I'm going to hazard a guess that Hing Kee sets the new, albeit somewhat lower, standard for xlb. Though they suffered from some structural deformity that initiated leakage from the underside, they still weren't bad: flavorful broth, tender, neatly pleated dough, available in pork or crabmeat and pork, for $6.99 and $7.99 per eight, respectively. And if you put yourself at the right table you can admire the skills of their maker, a woman from Guangdong who goes simply by the name of "Na." (h/t Jeff Bushofsky)
Hing Kee, 2140 S. Archer, 312-808-9538.