The sign for Kingdom of Dumplings is easily missed. Beneath the large Chinese characters — “Nation of Dumplings,” it proclaims — the English is thin and anemic, like a subtitle. “Kingdom of Dumplings,” it whispers.
Kingdom or nation? No matter. Seekers of soup dumplings, keep your eyes peeled.
There is something about Shanghainese soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao, that make people embark on quests for them, even to the Parkside neighborhood, where there are no decent bars. Xiaolongbao aren’t common, and they’re hard to get right.
For purists who care about regional authenticity, Kingdom stands out in part because it’s one of the few non-Cantonese dumpling places in San Francisco doing XLB of any caliber. For them, XLB at a dim sum spot should be eyed with suspicion.
Xiaolongbao look like miniature purses of coins, the kind one might find in a fairy tale kingdom. But they are filled with a different kind of wealth: spongy dollops of meat, sopping with broth. They’re small grenades of soup intended to explode in one’s mouth.
XLB often fail to meet my standards. If the skin is too thick, it’s a chew-fest. Too thin, and the dumpling detonates before making it onto a soup spoon. But when they are successful, one forgets one’s dining companions, the affairs of kingdoms and nations, and pretty much everything else.
This happens at Kingdom of Dumplings. The place has a muffled quiet. Even on a Tuesday, every table is filled with diners carefully nipping their dumplings open with their teeth, pouring in the accompanying soy sauce-vinegar-ginger concoction, and slurping up the resulting juicy mixture. Finally, they dive headfirst onto the spoon, picking up the dumplings the way one bobs for apples.
Kingdom’s pork-filled XLB are faintly chewy, with a mild broth that’s unctuous and unapologetically fatty and porky. There were no premature explosions — every dumpling made it intact into our mouths.
The rest of the menu, a hodgepodge of non-Cantonese dishes, rewards those who go off the beaten path. The cold plate of spicy beef tendon, translucent and tender as silver noodles, is oddly light for its beefy origins, and it leaves a lingering peppery bite on the tongue.
The cool and crisp lotus root plate, bright with ginger, added tone to the meal. The chicken and corn dumplings, though not soupy, have enough sweet fluid with which to squirt dining companions.
Another favorite was the pan-fried pork dumplings, which shined a pure white, the doughy casement piping hot and marshmallow soft.
The service was brisk and straightforward, if harried. It was sometimes difficult to get the server’s attention, but requests were promptly met once we did.
Our waitress skillfully navigated us through the unusual menu. I was ready for a language barrier, given the liberal amount of Chinese on the menu, but met with none. Apologies were made for a missed order of fried doughnuts, and a not-too-sweet dessert of fried bean-paste cakes was served instead for free.
Kingdom is warm, even with the door open. With its windows stained with fog tracks on the outside and steam tracks on the inside, it’s a fitting panacea to the drip and drear of western San Francisco. Come early if you don’t want to wait.