In the years after my childhood introduction to xiao long bao in an unassuming Hong Kong eatery during the late 1980s, it was practically impossible to get a decent version in Manila. With even attempts from five-star hotel restaurants falling flat, I resigned myself to only having the marvelously hearty Chinese pork soup dumplings during trips abroad. This conundrum was only solved at the start of the decade, when the Manila food scene saw the opening of restaurants such as the now-defunct Crystal Jade La Mein Xiao Long Bao, Shi Lin, and Lugang Café.
It is clear that xiao long bao has appealed to the Filipino palate. As several new specialty restaurants have opened, most of the original players have expanded, with Lugang Café having done remarkably well. From opening its first branch in 2010, the multi-awarded franchise from the China-based Bellagio Group has grown to seven restaurants featuring the creations of the group’s 14 Chinese Master Chefs, with its first provincial location scheduled to open in Davao.
Despite this increasing availability, I haven’t eaten much xiao long bao in recent years, making this visit to Lugang’s SM Aura branch for the fifth edition of their Feast All You Can promo an anomaly. I explain the reason for this as I meet Theresa Cruz, Lugang’s Area Manager, and Bien Caro, the Marketing Manager of HTCG Premium Food Concepts, which also owns and operates Tuan Tuan, Dessert Kitchen, and Xiu Fine Cantonese Dining. As we talk, we momentarily pause for an introduction to Peter Chua, HTCG’s President, who was coincidentally entertaining some guests.
Although xiao long bao remains a favorite, consuming several dozen soup dumplings during a previous edition of Lugang’s promo had pushed me beyond satiation. While I only have myself to blame for this, I suggested that the best way to highlight the promo’s scope would be through a one-time modification of its mechanics. Instead of the single main dish indicated in the rules, I ask if I can order multiple mains.
We then constructed my meal from the Feast All You Can menu, which has evolved to include several new items, in addition to some dishes exclusive to the annual promo. For Php 598+, with a Php 30 supplement for unlimited iced tea, the promo is an affordable and excellent way to survey Lugang’s repertoire, especially for first time visitors dining in groups. After selecting the components, I took a seat to await my order, which weighed over six pounds and filled the entire table.
I began with the soup of the day, a Hot and Sour Soup. I gulped down the thick, spicy-sour mixture before focusing on other appetizers, struggling as my inadequate chopstick skills caused bits of food to fall, which I still ate in line with the five-second rule.
While somewhat odd to find in a Chinese restaurant, the Vietnam Egg Rolls feature a delicious mix of vermicelli and ground shrimp wrapped in delicately fried rice paper. This serves as a good textural contrast to the Tofu with Preserved Egg and Pork Floss, a cold silken bean curd dish elevated with a drizzle of a syrup-like, soy-based sauce, and the addition of century egg and pork floss.
This emphasis on balance and complexity is also evident in the Pork Wontons in Spicy Chili Oil, which elevates wontons with an excellent ratio of wrapper and filling through chili oil. Naturally, Lugang’s dumpling expertise is best exemplified by its flagship Steamed Pork Xiao Long Bao, a masterful work of soupy pork precision that adheres to the Taiwanese penchant for thin skin, while maintaining structural integrity.
The Pineapple Shrimp with Crullers also follows this commitment to balance, with tart, sweet pineapple cutting the rich fried shrimp-stuffed bread and mayonnaise sauce. For its part, the Beijing Shredded Pork with Chinese Pancakes feature sweet-savory pork sandwiched in thin flour pancakes.
With the appetizers finished, I then focused on the starches, starting with the Minced Pork in Spicy Peanut Soup over Noodles, a new promo item with firm noodles acting as a wonderful vehicle for the addictive spicy pork and peanut soup. Although I would have wanted additional servings, I knew that I still had the fried rice of the day – the Golden Fried Rice, which brings together eggs, shredded pork and diced vegetables, as well as the Stewed Minced Pork Topped over Rice, a hearty minced pork stew perfectly complemented by plain rice.
As a dish created exclusively for the promo, the Peking Duck Wrap gives a sample of Northern Chinese cuisine, although it comes up short in conveying the decadence of a Peking duck feast. A better foray into Beijing’s culinary treasures can be had through the Pan Fried Dumpling, which underscores the restaurant’s dumpling mastery through crisp guotie filled with a juicy pork and chive mixture.
In line with its self-explanatory name, the Crispy Fried Chicken features a crisp, lightly seasoned half chicken that serves as an excellent foil to more sauce-driven dishes such as the Spare Ribs with Plum Sauce, a new special menu item that combines plum sauce and vinegar to create an intricate pork dish. Likewise, the Three Cup Chicken achieves complexity through a marriage of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. In the same manner, the Wasabi Mayo Prawns gives a surprising counterbalance to the notoriously heavy condensed milk and mayonnaise prawn salad through the addition of lemon and wasabi, while the Salted Egg Prawns uses fried basil leaves to add freshness to the rich sauce of salted and fresh duck eggs.
Given the sheer number of dishes, I must admit that I came close to quitting, especially toward the end. However, I finally finished everything in a little under 27 minutes. After an hour for interviews, I then tackled two baskets of xiao long bao, finishing sixteen in over a minute. While I left certain that it would be awhile before I wanted to see another dumpling, I knew that I would be back. Despite pushing me to my limits, Lugang’s promo was definitely a glorious feast of culinary expertise and precision.
Lugang Café’s 2018 Feast All You Can Promo runs until June 2, and is only valid from Mondays to Saturdays, with the exception of holidays.
Lugang Cafe is at the Level 5, SM Aura Premier, 26th Street corner Mckinley Parkway, Taguig. With six additional branches in Metro Manila. Operational hours vary per location. Call 519 5663, +(63) 906 4555873, or visit lugangcafe.com.ph