For the uninitiated, xiao long bao (XLB), or soup dumplings, are steamed, thin-walled dumplings filled with flavorful meat, usually pork, and hot, rich broth (hey, how did they get that in there?). XLBs are at once savory, soothing and sticky.
The soup in each dumpling is hot enough to cook the meat within its doughy confines. The soup dumplings at Shanghai Taste come in three guises: pork, pork and crab, and sheng jian bao, a pan-fried version of XLB that’s only available on Saturdays and Sundays.
Other items at Shanghai Taste range from noodle soups to sticky rice dishes to some tasty cold appetizers. Ingredient-wise, expect to order on the edge of your comfort zone. Chinese restaurants like this one require you to abandon dishes that feature neat Western butchery techniques and to enjoy the bigger, rounder flavor delivered by meat that’s cooked on the bone. Dishes here feature the full-flavored richness of slow-simmered beef, producing a musky broth that’s balanced by the sweet vinegar tang of traditional Shanghainese dishes.
Shanghai Taste’s dining room is spartan at best, and the servers seem split between friendly and rude. There is no alcohol, and the water, which is served in a foam cup, sometimes arrives lukewarm and ice-free. But the well-worn furniture and brusque service don’t distract from the best XLB in the area; they somehow highlight it.
1121 Nelson St., Rockville; 301-279-0806
The Cuban Corner
Located in a strip mall, but without the parking limitations that plague so many of them, The Cuban Corner is both bright and eclectic inside. The colorful murals take you to a breezy Havana day. (I just wish my pretend day-at-the-beach view wasn’t covered with placards touting seemingly every famous Cuban who ever set foot in America.)
Regardless, the food usually shines above the cluttered view. Start with a batido milkshake—the papaya-like sapote is sweet and refreshing—and an order of fresh, flaky empanadas.
The stuffed potato is crisp, hot out of the fryer, as are the ham croquettes. The chorizo-with-cheese appetizer is a Cuban rendition of Mexican queso fundido with melted Swiss and spicy sausages.
Among the entrées, you can’t go wrong with the pollo rancho luna. This braised chicken isn’t the most beautiful plating, but it boasts savory flavors of pungent garlic and light soy. The marinated roast pork lechon is rich and properly seasoned with bitter orange, but I prefer the “BarbeCuban” pork with a guava flavor that adds a delightful tang. The star of the menu is the robust ropa vieja, which features perfectly cooked shreds of juicy beef tossed with peppers and tomato.
There are plenty of competent seafood dishes if you don’t feel the meat vibe, but satisfaction lies in the heavier, savory dishes and the delightful black beans.
The service is efficient and affable in the always tidy dining room, and this is one strip mall eatery where you can order a beer with dinner.
825 Hungerford Drive, Rockville; 301-279-0310