If you want good Asian food nowadays you often have to trek to the suburbs. Asian enclaves are no longer built around urban ghettos, but rather on the outskirts of city centers – in the burroughs and burbs where there’s more space and opportunity for establishing viable communities. Such is the case with the San Gabriel Valley, located east of downtown Los Angeles. I love Chinatown, L.A., for the hearty pot stickers at the Mandarin Deli (which is now closed!) but to explore a broader swathe of Chinese dumplings, I head eastward on the 10 freeway into cities like Monterey Park and Baldwin Hills and El Monte where many Hong Kong and Taiwanese Chinese immigrants have settled and prospered, where they demand and get fabulous food.
I did a fair amount of research for this book by eating dumplings and whenever possible, watching dumpling masters. That truly helped me replicate the flavor and cooking and wrapping techniques. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you can too. For Chinese dumplings (I’ll leave dim sum for another occasion), get in the car and head to the San Gabriel Valley. Over the course of several dumpling crawls with friends and professionals such as Chinese food expert Carl Chu, author of Chinese Food Finder. Here are some standout dumpling shops:
Luscious Dumplings (704 West Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel)
I went to Luscious Dumplings the day after Thanksgiving and loaded up on amazing pan-fried pork dumplings. Their skin is tender but chewy and the fillings are really well prepared. Luscious has a small, tight menu of dumplings, noodles, and a few snacks – just like you’d find at a joint in China! It gets busy so be prepared to wait outside, or step inside the tiny restaurant and order to go. You can wait by the kitchen for a little peek of the back-of-the-house action. Hit Luscious and then walk across the way to Michelle’s.
Michelle’s Pancakes (706 West Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel)
Just opened earlier this year, Michelle’s doesn’t serve pancakes and syrup but rather the term pancake is a literal translation of bing – the Mandarin Chinese word for doughy foods, such as pancakes, cakes, and dumplings. No MSG here, Michelle says. She’s from Shandong province and talks a mile a minute. Ever since the LA Times issued a glowing review, Michelle and her staff have been working overtime, rolling dough out by hand, despite having a machine in the back. I ate here with Carl Chu, and #1 – the leeks, eggs, shrimp, and cellophane noodle pancake is really a flat panfried dumpling; there are pancakes made of the same dough for you to wrap around meat and scallion and dip into a dark bean sauce.
Plenty of other tables had poached dumplings, which I’m going to order next time. It’s bright and cheery at Michelle’s and the food reminds me of being in Asia. From Michelle’s, you can stumble over to Vietnam House in the same strip mall for Viet snacks.
Mei Long Village (301 West Valley Blvd, Suite 112, San Gabriel)
You may have another opinion, but I believe that Mei Long Village has the best Shanghai soup dumplings (xiaolongbao, XLB) in the San Gabriel Valley – better than Din Tai Fung (see below)! They’ve got a hand-made quality to the dough, which is neither overly white nor tasteless like other XLB I’ve tasted. The basic pork version is all I need to keep me happy; the crab version is not crabby but just slightly pricier. My friends buy Mei Long Village’s dumplings and keep them frozen but I enjoy them fresh on the spot. There’s a full menu of Shanghai specialties, and the dishes I’ve sampled have all been well prepared. Savory and sweet dumplings are listed under “Shanghai Pastries”; the radish pan cake is more of a covered pastry/dumpling than a pancake. If there’s a long wait, get a therapeutic foot massage at any of the joints located in the strip mall. Or peruse the giant mall at the corner of Del Mar and Valley for of China in Southern California.
Dumpling House (5612 Rosemead Blvd, Temple City, dumplinghouserestaurant.com)
There are 50-pound bags of flour resting near the entrance to the restaurant so you know these people are serious. His pan-fried pork dumplings are deep fried and taste like really good frozen egg rolls – okay that’ s not a fair comparison. That style of deep-fried dumpling is more prevalent in Korea than China. The restaurant boasts northern Chinese fare but I heard so much Korean spoken when I was there, I queried the restaurant owner. He revealed that he was originally from Shandong, a province that blends Korean and Chinese cultures and speaks both Mandarin and Korean. “You can see Korea from Shandong,” he joked. “The flight to and from is very fast.”
Dumpling Master Restaurant (423 North Atlantic Blvd # 106, Monterey Park)
It’s more of a small joint than a swank restaurant but the selection of boiled, panfried, steamed dumplings features pork, pork and shrimp, lamb, chicken, sole (fish), vegetables, and even venison. They have frozen dumplings to take home too. Be forgiving to the menu, which is not well translated into English, and the environment, which is slightly dirty, hole-in-the-wall. The dumplings are somewhat cruder in texture and blander in flavor than others in the San Gabriel Valley, and cost less than $5 per order. Don’t forget the scallion pancakes, which are great, and check out the cold appetizers (side dishes) to go along with your dumplings. Atlantic Boulevard is the starting point of Monterey Park so there’s much to explore around Dumpling Master.
Din Tai Fung (1108 South Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, www.dintaifungusa.com)
The Arcadia location of Taiwan-based Din Tai Fung is currently the only one in America. There have been rumblings that DTF may open up in the San Francisco Bay area but that was sheer rumor. The specialty here are Shanghai soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) and the staff and DTF is so polished it’s like a well-oiled machine. Everything is computerized and the small half-sheet menu features just soup, rice, and dumplings. No liquor. The wait is always long, but you can watch the team of skilled Latino cooks through a glass window making the dumplings. (Do Latino cooks rock or what?) The dumplings come out fast and everyone eats them quickly and gets out fast, turning tables rapidly. Ding Tai Fung uses a proprietary blend of flour for their skin but I found the wrappers to be on the tasteless side. Some say it’s the Los Angeles water but I’ve had the dumplings at Ding Tai Fung in Shanghai and while each one is beautiful, the overall taste is lacking. Perhaps it’s the result of an over-polished operation that sacrifices flavor at the expense of consistency. Go to watch experts make xiaolongbao and experience what many consider to be the best Shanghai soup dumplings around. Also note the well-heeled clientele. Welcome to affluent, suburban Asian-America.
Dumpling 10053 (10053 Valley Blvd, Suite 2, El Monte)
Not far from Din Tai Fung but certainly on the other side of the tracks, Dumpling 10053 has some terrific offerings. El Monte is not a great neighborhood but I’d make the drive for the boiled pork, crab, and sea cucumber dumpling. Why? Because the filling tastes hand-chopped and it goes well with the homemade chile mixture that’s on the table. Skip the rock cod dumplings which have an odd ricotta cheese texture. Go for the sole dumplings, which are more flavorful. The shrimp and pumpkin dumpling is an inventive take on a dumpling filling.
Have any thoughts or recommendations? Do weigh in and make suggestions too.