This restaurant is up a flight of stairs, set in the rather maze like pedestrianised area called the Old City, just by Yuyuan. The restaurant has been running for over a century (established in 1900) and is named after the town where, according to legend, the xiao long bao soup dumpling was invented, possibly by a restaurant there called Gulong, though this story is not universaly accepted. The true origins of the dish are probably lost in the mists of time, but this restaurant has at least been a place that has helped popularised the dish through its sheer longevity. These days the popular standard bearer for xiao long bao is the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung, but that didn’t get going until 1972, so Nanxiang was knocking out soup dumplings seven decades before Mr Yang Bingyi converted his cooking oil business called Din Tai Fung into the beginnings of a global restaurant empire. The long history of Nanxiang brings in crowds of people, and there is a permanent and lengthy queue outside winding back on itself, though it does move at a decent pace, because the upstairs dining room is quite large, and steamers of dumplings emerge from the kitchen on an industrial scale. We waited about twenty minutes in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
Once safely seated, you order by ticking a box on a little order sheet from a meal that has an English translation, so it clearly gets a fair number of tourists from abroad as well as throngs of Chinese tourists, plus locals. We tried two variations, the classic pork dumpling (priced at CNY 35 = £4) and a variant with pork and crab roe (priced at CNY 55 = £6.30). Din Tai Fung buns are small and neat with exactly eighteen folds in the bun, but these were cruder, with thirteen or fourteen folds in the ones I counted. The dumpling was also a bit thicker and less delicate than Din Tai Fung. The filling was quite meaty with relatively little melted liquid meat stock, which again differs from the Din Tai Fung version, where there is a higher proportion of liquid centre. Hence I would say that although Nanxiang may have got there first, it has been considerably surpassed in quality by the Taiwanese chain. Indeed these xiao long bao were less good than another well rated local place, Jia Jia Tang Bao, that we tried the day before. They were pleasant enough, maybe 12/20 level if I am kind, but I wouldn’t be hurrying back here. The Chinese friends that I went with agreed that this was a place more of historical interest than being the standard bearer of quality for the soup dumpling. Service, if that is the word, was perfunctory but the bill came to just CNY (£4) per person with drinks.