Dumpling heaven in Chinatown

The "soup dumplings" - or "Shanghai steamed buns" - are an adventure diner's dream, although eating them without being scalded is a challenge. (BARBARA L. JOHNSTON / Inquirer)

Mere mention of a "soup dumpling" sighting is often enough to make a serious adventure diner twitch, activating a primal tracker instinct more commonly reserved for tasks like pursuing the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Exceedingly uncommon around here, and even rarer done well, this Shanghai treat is a sleight of broth and dough that puts the "soup" inside a steam-puffed beggar's purse twisted up tight and tidy.

This curiosity (usually noted as "Shanghai steamed buns" on menus) has long incited road-trip quests, most often to New York's Chinatown, where Joe's Shanghai is among those that made them famous. And the first question is inevitably: How did the broth find its way inside to begin with? The second, and perhaps more pressing dilemma, though, is how to eat the equivalent of a boiling-hot broth balloon without getting scalded in the process.

It's tricky, and there are numerous techniques, but even the most agile chopstick maven is bound to splatter a shirt or two at first. My approach works well, but it takes a sure hand to delicately grasp the dumpling near its neck, nibble a hole in the top to sip the juice, and then swab the remaining dumpling in ginger dip without adding a stain of black vinegar to the injury of errant soup.

The good news is that you no longer have to travel to Manhattan to practice. In fact, stop just a few feet shy of the passenger line loading onto the bargain bus from Philly's Chinatown to New York's, and you will find the dumpling dive of our dreams: Dim Sum Garden.

There were soup dumplings galore, as fine as I've ever had. Hearty hand-shaved noodles basked in bowls of broth and plates of brisket gravy. Salt-baked shrimp were skewered on a stick, crackly crisp with seasoning but still sweet inside. Unusual sui mai dumplings shaped like hourglasses were filled with addictive sticky rice laced with crumbled pork. I even found perhaps the best scallion pancakes in town - their cracker-brown exteriors sandwiching flaky white layers of tender scallion-flecked dough.

Of course, this neon-lit box of an eatery, just six months old, resides on possibly the dreariest and most obscure corner where one could park a restaurant in Center City. To find it, navigate the phalanx of panhandlers in front of the Arch Street Wawa, and then plunge deep inside the diesel-fumed darkness of the 11th Street tunnel that runs below the Hilton Garden Inn. A sign touting fried chicken wings and french fries, an effective come-on to the hurried bus stop crowd, is an added decoy from its true culinary glory.

In-the-know adventure eaters, ever covetous of their secret nooks, would have it no other way. And part of me regrets divulging this treasure. But I was kindly tipped to Dim Sum Garden by someone in my weekly online chat, as we lamented the recent closing of another Chinatown favorite, Lakeside Chinese Deli. So in honor of the still-vibrant tradition of the great Chinatown joint, I am obliged to share.

And while Dim Sum Garden's menu isn't as deep as Lakeside's, and the flavor focus is Shanghai rather than Hong Kong, it is still a kindred spirit, with a kitchen dedicated to handmade food that is far more splendid than its humble (albeit sparkling clean) setting.

Owner Tom Guo has a kitchen full of Shanghainese cooks to give it life, including a veteran chef affectionately known as "Dear Sister" whom I saw behind the counter nimbly filling, twisting and sealing those Shanghai steamed buns with remarkable efficiency and speed. An absence of obvious broth beside the mound of ginger-seasoned pork stuffing only heightens the mystery. But those superb soup dumplings, which I'll get to later, are just some of Dim Sum Garden's draws.

Dim Sum Garden makes all its own noodles, hand-rolling and cleaver-slicing the dough into chewy, irregular strands as thick as udon. They come in soup, sparked with pickled cabbage and tender roasted pork, or topped with sheer-skinned wonton dumplings that mingle with ribbons of egg crepe and crunchy brown seaweed. But I loved them best "dry" on a plate, slicked with the star anise-scented brown gravy of tender brisket.

The pork and chive dumplings are also stellar, smaller than the usual potstickers, but clearly handmade, like plump, oversized agnolotti. The vegetable steamed buns - cloudlike puffs of stuffed white dough known as "bao" that are different from the Shanghai steamed buns - are so popular that Guo makes the stuffing in a giant tub, standing on a box to plunge in elbow-deep and mix the shredded Shanghai cabbage, black mushrooms, and dried tofu. The triple steamed dumplings, with chive, rice noodles, egg and tiny shrimp, were even more tasty.

Dim Sum did dish some duds. Like the greasy, boring fried chicken wings that Guo insists are a variation on a true Chinese favorite. Or the dull spring roll. Or the gloppy-sauced, surprisingly bland ma po tofu over rice.

Some items that came with rice were notable, like the surprisingly great pork meatballs, rolled with crunchy water chestnuts and fresh bamboo shoots, then sauced in an intriguingly dark, sweet soy glaze. The "stewed" eel – chopped live, then wok-crisped into chunks - was shined with an intense garlic sauce. It was an acquired taste we quickly mastered as our fingers got saucy and we discovered how to pry the peppery, resilient meat from the bones with our teeth.

But in general, take the noodle option over rice, as Dim Sum Garden simply works magic with dough. You'll realize this the moment you gently lift one of those quivering hot soup dumplings from the steamer basket, the skins so delicate, but just sturdy enough not to burst.

Nip a hole and slurp the juice, for which our charming waitress finally confided the secret: pork "Jell-O" that becomes molten in the steam. Eyes snap open as the liquid rushes across our tongue, intensely savory, with a twinge of soy sweetness followed by the resonance of garlic. A dip in gingery black vinegar washes the tender meat stuffing and dumpling skin down with a bracingly tart smack. Want another? You bet!

They may no longer be the culinary rarity they were, but these Shanghai buns have found a local home in Dim Sum Garden that's still worth flocking to.

Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews the Ugly American in South Philadelphia. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.