Gently lift the dumpling, slowly carry it to your spoon, open the skin and then drink the soup. So goes the translation of a Chinese proverb explaining how to eat xiao long bao, the wildly popular dumplings known for their soupy filling. How you choose to get to the soup — by piercing the wrapper or biting off the dumpling’s topknot — is immaterial; it all leads to the same end.
Xiao long bao are commonly linked to Shanghai — specifically Nan Xiang, the town where some believe they originated. These dumplings are thriving in New York City: Two longtime specialists, Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao in Flushing and Joe’s Shanghai in Manhattan, recently reopened with glitzy, expanded dining rooms.
The latest entrant is 3 Times, on the Lower East Side (and a second, smaller location near Union Square), where the chief executive and co-owner, Jason Zhu, is confident that he has something better.
At both locations, the characteristically intricate pleats of each xiao long bao are tight and neat. The dough is supple enough that the bottoms sag under the weight of the soup, but sturdy enough to prevent breakage. (The technique for creating the soup involves aspic, made from pork skin and mixed into the filling, that liquefies when steamed.) Mixed-grain dough is also available, with a touch of buckwheat that makes the skins tanned and speckled.
The classic filling is pork, its flavor clarified by ginger and rice wine. Crab adds feathery shreds of sweet meat and a pristine wave of umami. A drip of black vinegar, sharp and honeyed, steadies the luscious fattiness. There are even vegetarian xiao long bao, which rely on the inherent juiciness of cabbage for their broth.
Mr. Zhu, 31, is from Nanjing, the capital city of Jiangsu Province. As a tour guide in New York, he struggled to find a good Chinese restaurant to recommend to his groups. He noticed the popularity of Din Tai Fung, a Taiwan-based chain with locations across the globe, but not in New York City. Through a translator, Mr. Zhu said his restaurants have the same ethos as the chain: “It’s about quality.”
The 3 Times menu extends far beyond soup dumplings, though it doesn’t need to. Dan dan noodles, labeled on the menu as noodles with minced pork sauce, are perfectly chewy beneath a coating of ground sesame seeds and Sichuan peppercorns. Chilled cuts of beef tendon are sheer texture — a gelatinous medium for a bright, not-too-greasy oil with a lip-tingling tickle.
It helps to notice the thumbs-up icons recommending certain dishes, but not to be limited by them. Pork mooncakes are as good as larded pastry encasing a springy pork filling should be. But even better are the radish pancakes — orbs of laminated dough that flakes around ribbons of crunchy radish, dried shrimp and cured ham. They’re a reminder that dim sum at its best is not just elegant, but boisterously flavorful, too.
The menu’s lack of focus can be hard to navigate — it swings from western Chinese dishes to coastal dim sum — but it’s also highly compelling. Mr. Zhu’s family recipe for Nanjing salted duck is a gift: a salt- and Sichuan peppercorn-brined duck poached with aromatics, hacked into pieces and served cold. The jellied skin is slick with duck schmaltz, and the blushing pink meat is charged with five-spice.
Equipped with a bigger kitchen and gas burners, the Lower East Side location also offers a variety of entrees (but only at dinner). I enjoyed the pillowy texture of basa fillets in the braised fish with green peppercorns, but ultimately, preferred making a meal of assorted small plates.
Both locations opened in November with counter service and a smaller menu. When business faltered, Mr. Zhu decided to change things. A month later, he reopened with a new dim sum chef, Yuqin Xu, who has more than 40 years of experience in her native Shanghai and in New York City. Ms. Xu had retired from cooking in restaurants; it took multiple attempts to persuade her to work in one again.
Mr. Zhu’s persistence eventually won her over. “We want to bring customers the best,” he said. In Ms. Xu’s hands, “they don’t just taste like Shanghai xiao long bao, they are Shanghai xiao long bao.”
90 Clinton Street (Delancey Street), Lower East Side; 646-609-6324; 3times.com
818 Broadway (East 12th Street), Union Square; 646-609-3040; 3times.com