Udon Lab, New York, NY

Udon Lab is an Udon bar and Izakaya that makes its udon from scratch and prepares each bowl fresh.  They offer 11 hot udon dishes and 6 cold udon dishes, a selection of izakaya appetizers, some donburi dishes, a handful of sushi rolls and three styles of onigiri.  My favorite appetizer was the Saba Miso-Ni, which is grilled Mackerel braised in a sweetened miso sauce and it is exceptional.  The miso sauce was sweet, fishy (in a good way) and full of umami and had a silky texture – I asked for spoon so I could finish the sauce after I ate the Mackerel.  The mentaiko onigiri was also delicious, salty pollock roe in perfectly cooked rice, wrapped in crispy seasoned seaweed.

The Dumplings: Unfortunately, while the menu describes the gyoza as being pork filled, they are actually filled with a mix of chicken and pork.  Since I don’t eat chicken I can had to pass on trying the gyoza.  Thankfully Udon Lab does really great Takoyaki, that had a crispy crunchy outer shell, a super creamy interior and big pieces of chewy octopus.  The Takoyaki were served with lots of Japanese mayo, a pile of finely shredded bonito and lots of finely shredded seasoned seaweed.  Each bite was a delicious mix of crispy and creamy textures and sweet and salty flavors. 

The Location:  Udon Lab is located in Manhattan’s Korea Town neighborhood, on the main drag of 32nd street between 5th and 6th Avenues.  It is on the north side of the street closer to 6th than 5th Avenue.

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Dumpling Jjamppong, Jeong’s Kitchen (Danny’s Kitchen), HMart Philadelphia

I have been obsessing over Netflix’s show “A Nation of Broth” which over three episodes, with endless food-porn, documents the centrality of soups and stews in Korean cuisine. The show made me crave some Korean soup, so I went over to the HMart food court on North Front Street, which has a ton of options for soup and stew. The food court has stalls selling varieties of kimchi Jjigaes, Jjamppong, Soondudu, and Raman, and I went with the Dumpling Jjamppong at Jeong’s Kitchen aka Danny’s Kitchen. Jjamppong is a noodle soup of spicy seafood or pork broth, usually with onion, cabbage, carrots and seafood and is commonly found in Korean-Chinese restaurants.

The Dumplings: The Dumpling Jjamppong was a huge, delicious, dish of food, with four dumplings, shrimp, squid, muscles, carrots, onion, scallions and cabbage piled over noodles, with a deeply rich, super spicy, seafood broth. The dumplings were either steamed or boiled and then added into the soup and were pretty standard, qyoza style pork dumplings, but the spicy seafood broth infused additional flavor into the dumplings, which completely elevated them. Combined with the soup, they turned out to be excellent dumplings. I also enjoyed the cabbage in the soup, the crunch added a great textural component to the dish. The broth was really rich and flavorful and for me very spicy, but the spice did not overwhelm the seafood flavor.

The Location: Jeong’s Noodles is in the food court at the HMart on North Front street in Philadelphia. Food courts in Asian supermarkets are nothing like the terrible Sbarro Pizza-Panda Express-Chipotle ridden food courts in airports and suburban malls, they often have amazing and diverse food options and are some of my favorite places to eat.

Posted in Chinese, Gyoza, Jjampppong, Korean, Mandoo, Noodles, Philadelphia | Leave a comment

Aged Japanese Soy Sauce Tasting

The pandemic continues to impede the Dumpling Hunter mission and outings to restaurants have been few and far between.  I have just started travelling to work conferences and after each of them there have been emails and phone calls from contract tracing teams following up on conference COVID infections.  Check this website from Columbia University for weekly projections of how the pandemic will evolve in each county in the USA.  

Thus, we remain mostly bunkered down at home and mainly venturing out for grocery shopping and, during COVID lulls, mission critical in-person work meetings.  Needing to restock on soy sauce to make dumpling sauces, we recently hit our local H-Mart and their entire aisle dedicated to soy sauces. We were dismayed though to see that a lot of the standard soy sauces had tons of chemicals listed in their ingredients.  This led us on a quest to mail order some high-end Japanese soy sauces, made from just water, soy, wheat, salt and time. We then gathered a panel to do a soy sauce tasting.  To put things in perspective we started with some super-market Kikkoman soy sauce, which was unanimously described as tasting of chemicals (but we do love their bizarre animated commercials – google it).  

Kajita Shoten – was first up for tasting, a soy sauce that had been aged for three years and had a cool dragon logo. The panel of tasters all agreed the flavor was smooth and rounded with lots of umami. Several panelists noted a Marmite-esque front-end and mushroom like back-end as the flavor evolved in the mouth.  Kajita Shoten is a Saishikomi (doubled-brewed) soy sauce which is produced from brewing equal amounts of soybeans and wheat with regular soy sauce (Koikuchi) instead of water and salt. 

This was rated as the best all purpose soy sauce

Shiso Marudai – the first of two SHISO varieties, this had as stronger, saltier front end than the Kajita.  The taste started with a fermented tofu flavor and then progressed with rolling waves of flavor, described as bright, grassy and slightly vinegar.  Shiso Marudai is made with higher quality whole soy beans which contain more oils which influence the way the fermentation process evolves.

Rated as best dumpling dipping sauce.

Shiso Koikuchi – This sauce is aged for two years and is mellower than the Marudai and has coffee and chocolate undertones and hints of Marmite.  The flavor does not evolve with a different front and back end, but rather spreads out over the mouth. The two year aging process is longer than used in commercial sauces, typically 6 months, and in comparison produces higher levels of glutamic acids which generates the umami flavor.

Yamasan Kanro Shoyu – this is another double brewed soy sauce that has been aged for 1,000 days. The sauce was thick, concentrated and salty and hit hard up-front and then smoothed out.  The taste was one consistent note across the mouth.  Described as being like an “old school Korean soy sauce”. 

This is a good every-day soy sauce.

Yamaroku Tsuru Bishio – this sauce has been aged for four years in a traditional wooden tub used for fermenting foods. It is a thicker, complex sauce with bright grassy flavors that move around the tongue and evolves.  Best summed up by a panelist as “The sauce is a ballet in my mouth”. 

Of the five, this sauce would be best for Sushi. 

After tasting this sauce, we realized the Shiso Marudai was like a young Tsuru Bishio.

         

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Bing Bing Dim Sum, Philadelphia PA

Bing Bing Dim Sum is a hipster Chinese-fusion restaurant in South Philadelphia with a limited small plate menu that does not really rise to the title of Dim Sum. The menu includes a handful of vegan items and they are willing to veganize some of the other items. The Dan Dan Noodles was great veganized, with shiitake mushroom pieces filling in for the traditional pork, and perfect al dente springy chewy noodles. The eggplant mapo tofu was solidly tasty, but not worth the $16 they charge for it. Overall the prices at Bing Bing seemed high for what they served.

The Dumplings: The Scarlet Dumplings, which are filled with Swiss shard, tofu and crispy garlic, were way over cooked. The filling was a wad of overcooked greens with a slightly bitter cabbage flavor. However, the pork soup dumpling were among the best I have had in a long time. They were cooked perfectly, which you rarely see in the U.S., so the wrappers maintained their integrity and kept the soup contained. They packed a lot of unctuous soup into these dumplings and the pork filling was delicious, savory and slightly sweet. The dipping sauce was also really good, usually I find the traditional black vinegar based sauce to be sharp and acrid, but at Bing Bing the vinegar sauce is smoothed and mellowed. I almost, almost, forgive them for charging $10 for only four of these dumplings. I also tried the Caterpillar Bread which was essentially an open ended baked BBQ pork bun. It appears that they make a long baked loaf of fluffy Chinese style bread stuffed with BBQ pork, and then cut slices off the loaf for each serving. Instead of cut pieces of pork that fill a traditional Chinese BBQ pork bun, the Caterpillar Bread filling was a Southern U.S. style finely shredded or pulled pork, cooked in a Chinese style BBQ sauce. The bun bread and the stuffing were delicious.

The lighting at the bar at Bing Bing was not great and so my pictures did not come out well. Below are some embedded urls to pictures in the Infatuation’s article on Bing Bing.

Soup Dumplings (Infatuation)
Caterpillar Bread (Infatuation)

Location: Bing Bing Dim Sum is on E Passyunk Avenue in South Philly, on a triangular plot at the intersection of 12th street and Morris Street.

Posted in Bao, Buns, Chinese, Dim Sum, Dipping Sauce, Philadelphia, Soup Dumpling, Xiao Long Bao | Leave a comment

Bai Wei, Philadelphia

Bai Wei (previously Sakura Mandarin) has several things going for it during COVID times, it is spacious and airy and the tables are reasonably far apart, but the staff is lackadaisical about checking vaccination status. I have been there twice and ordered several dishes each time. The cold sesame noodles were good and reminded me of the old-school NYC sesame noodles that used to come for free if you ordered $20 or more for delivery. The pancakes stuffed with chives and egg were also very good, but the scallion pancakes were a disappointment; they seemed to have been deep fried.

The Dumplings: The dumplings were quite disappointing. The first time there, I had the steamed veggie dumplings they were really good but the second time around they were way over cooked, to the point where the green dough was washed out and had turned pale. The Pork Wontons in Chili Oil were another fail. The wontons themselves were under stuffed with measly amounts of filling and were served lukewarm. Probably because they were under cooked, the wrappers were stiff and chewy. In addition they were not even served in chili oil, but rather they were served in a mixture of soy sauce and the same sesame sauce that came with the noodles. There might have been a little chili oil mixed in, but there was no chili spice heat..

Lastly the Pan Fried Pork Soup Dumplings (Sheng Jian Bao) were weak. The pork filling tasted pretty good, but there was no soup and the bottoms of the bao were not nearly fried enough, plus the bottoms of the bao were quite oily. It is hard to do fried soup dumplings right, so that the bottom of the bao is seared dark brown and there is still liquid soup inside of the bao. In the US you can usually expect the bottom of the bao to be seared but I have rarely been served this dish with liquid soup inside the bao. I order this dish because I enjoy the contrast of the crispy texture of the fried part of the bao and soft texture of the steamed part of the bao and the umami flavor from the Maillard reaction that occurs when the bottom of the bao is seared. If there is soup inside then that is a bonus. But no searing on the bottom of the bao and no soup inside makes for a weak pan fried pork soup dumpling.

The Location: Bai Wei is on the corner of 11th street and Race street at the edge of Philadelphia’s Chinatown. But my recommendation is that you head deeper into Chinatown and try one of the many other options available there.

Posted in Bao, Buns, Chinese, Chive, Philadelphia, Pork, Sesame Sauce, Soup Dumpling, Veggie Dumplings | Leave a comment

Heading back into the kitchen

With the Omicron surge upon us the Dumpling Hunter team is retreating from restaurant dining for a while and returning to home cooking. We recently tried making pork and kimchi dumplings using OmniFoods plant based ground pork. I am not going to post the recipe because they did not turn out that great, but the pictures are pretty. The OmniPork worked quite well for making pork and scallion wontons, but the mild flavor of the OmniPork was totally overpowered by the kimchi. The kimchi itself was excellent, but these dumplings did not replicate the truly great flavor of pork and kimchi dumplings.

Stay safe out there.

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Izakaya E.A.K., Hell’s Kitchen, NY

Izakaya E.A.K. is part of Japan’s E.A.K. Ramen chain of restaurants (in Japan known as the Machida Shoten chain), which specializes in IEKEI ramen. According to their website they have over 400 locations in Japan and a presence in Singapore, Taiwan, Phillipines, Italy, China, Thailand and the U.S., with three locations in New York City. IEKEI style ramen marries together the Tonkotsu style of Kyushu and the Shoyu style of Tokyo and is topped with spinach instead of green onions and uses a thick, straight noodle. Izakaya E.A.K. serves their IEKEI ramen, including three vegan ramens, and a decent selection of typical izakaya dishes.

The Dumplings: The Homemade Ginger Gyoza were grilled and then a batter was poured on top of them, so when they are done, they are cooked into a fried disk of batter. This preparation is often called “dumpling lace” or “crispy lace skirt”, and as the names imply the fried batter is usually very thin, crispy and lace like. At Izakaya E.A.K. the fried batter layer was instead thick and leathery and not particularly enjoyable. The pork gyoza filling also contained a lot ginger, so much so, that it was overkill and the dumplings had a metallic aftertaste. The dipping sauce also have a lot of raw ginger flavor which just added to the metallic flavor.

The takoyaki where artfully presented but sadly did not come adorned with bonito flakes. I actually prefer this dish presented as street food, in a paper boat style container with takoyaki sauce and Japanese mayo sauce squirted everywhere, and a big pile of bonito flakes waving in the thermal currents coming off the blazing hot takoyaki. Speaking of which the takoyaki I was served were only lukewarm. The outside was fried crispy and the inside was creamy, so I think my serving had sat for a bit before they were brought to me.

Thankfully the meal was not a complete bust, because the Butakaku (pork belly) bao were sensational. The bao were filled with a thick slab of very tender, creamy with layers of fat, pork belly that tasted amazing. The bao were doused with a ton of Japanese mayonnaise. The contrast of the savory pork and the sweetness of the bao bun and the mayonnaise created a perfect blend of sweet and savory. This is almost certainly the best pork bao I have ever eaten.

Location: Izakaya E.A.K. is on 46th St. between Eighth and Ninth Avenue, which is the theater district’s pre-show restaurant row. It is right next to sake bar Hagi 46.

Posted in Bao, Gyoza, Izakaya, Japanese, New York City, Pan Fried, Pork, Potsticker, Ramen Bar, Takoyaki | Leave a comment

Saigon Quy-Bau, Philadelphia PA

Saigon Quy-Bau opened in Aug 2021 and is named for the Chef’s Vietnamese name, Bau, and his older brother’s name, Quy, which together means “prestigious”.  The Chef, Corey Nguyen, is a veteran of the Fountain and Swann Lounge at the old Four Seasons Hotel and previously ran the elegant Colonial Quy-Bau, which closed during the lockdowns. The new Saigon Quy-Bau claims to serve “French Inspired Vietnamese with a flair of Thai Cuisine”.  We tried the Com Chien Thit Nuong which is Vietnamese style BBQ pork over jasmine fried rice, which was excellent.  The pork was perfectly caramelized and had the sweet and charred flavor that you want from Vietnamese BBQ.  The Pho Rau & Tofu, which is vegan, was less successful.  The Pho broth was pretty good and had clear Vietnamese flavors, but the vegetables were over cooked and close to mushy.

The Dumplings:  I am not used to seeing dumplings on a Vietnamese menu but the lunch menu at Saigon Quy-Bau has several varieties:  crispy curry chicken dumplings in a sweet soy ginger glaze; steamed pork dumplings with a bell pepper tomato sauce; crispy wontons filled with shrimp and fresh herbs served with a plum ginger sauce; and steamed portabella mushroom and leek dumplings with a caramelized onion and shiitake sauce.  We tried the steamed portabella mushroom and leek dumplings and were blown away, this dish is the reason to return to Saigon Quy-Bau.  The dumplings were steamed to perfection so that the wrappers had a slight al dente chew to them and the filling was sweet and umami from the leeks and mushrooms.  The sauce was also brilliant. It was light but so flavorful with onion sweetness, a slight umami funk from the shiitake and hints of ginger.  If they sold this sauce in bottles I would buy it and if they provided straws with the dish I would slurp the sauce off the plate. The portabella mushroom and leek dumplings are vegan.

The Location:  Saigon Quy-Bau is on South street in Philadelphia at the corner of Clarion street, which is one block East of Broad Street.

Posted in Philadelphia, Steamed, Vegan, Vegetarian, Vietnamese | Leave a comment

Cafe Cuong, Philadelphia PA

Café Cuong is a tiny family run café that is best known for its Banh Mi sandwiches, which are excellent, and its Vietnamese coffee.  The café is in what appears to be a row house and it feels like the counter and the one tiny table are in what used to be a small living room.  While the focus is on Banh Mi, they also frequently have Com chay cha bong, which are sheets of crispy rice topped with fish sauce, dried shrimp and pork floss (pork shredded so finely it has the consistency of cotton candy).  Of late they have also been serving Banh Gio, also known as Vietnamese pyramid rice dumplings. Banh Gio are made with a pork stock, rice flour and tapioca starch batter that is put into a pyramid shaped cone made of banana leaves, along with a filling of seasoned pork, wood ear mushrooms and a quail egg.  The banana leaves are folded origami style to seal up the cone into a pyramid shape and then the pyramid is steamed. 

Online sources say that Banh Gio originated in Northern Vietnam and got their name because they were made by Vietnamese charcutier who make the mortadella like pork sausage called gio.  Banh is a generic Vietnamese term for foods made with flours, legumes and starches, so Banh Gio.

The Dumplings:  I discovered that I am not a huge fan of the texture of the rice batter, it was like eating a lot of the wrapper from an over cooked crystal shrimp dumpling.  But the flavor was amazing, lots of porky goodness along with an infusion of mild tea flavor from the banana leaf wrapper.  The pork filling was loosely ground and mixed with strips of wood ear mushroom and had lots of flavors, I’m guessing it was cooked with aromatics and maybe soy or oyster sauce. Pork flavor had also infused into the white of the quail egg, which took the egg to 11. I asked if they make the Banh Gio in house and was told they do not, but instead get them from an older woman in the neighborhood who home cooks them.

The location:  Café Cuong is on 8th street, just above Christian Street, in an area sometimes referred to as Bella Vista and also referred to as the Italian Market neighborhood (it is one block East of the Market).  Also since, further south on 8th street there is the Little Saigon neighborhood, it could also be thought of as the northern reaches of Little Saigon.  Café Cuong is currently doing take-out only and given its size, in the before times I am sure it didn’t seat many people.  So I recommend taking your Banh Gio and Banh Mi to the park on Catherine street, it is just a half-block north of the Café.

(Sorry the pix of the Banh Gio are not my strongest work. Threw in one of their Banh Mi too)

Posted in Pork, Rice Dumplings, Steamed, Vietnamese | Leave a comment

Little Alley, Scallion Stuffed Pocket

Rating:

Little Alley is a Taiwanese food company whose products are represented and distributed in the U.S. by the Well Luck Co. Inc. The Scallion Stuffed Pocket is the love child of a scallion pancake and a Hot Pocket. The pocket dough is make of scallion pancake dough that has been folded and layered like a traditional scallion pancake. This gives the pocket the layering that produces the crispy outside and slightly chewy flaky inner layers that are characteristic of a scallion pancake. The pocket is stuffed with lots of chopped scallions, white onions and fried chives, more that you get in a typical scallion pancake..

These pockets were really good, definitely worth having in the freezer for a snack . As I noted above, the dough of the pocket fries up to have a very similar texture to a scallion pancake, but because they are ram-packed with scallions they had a more intense flavor than scallion pancakes do. The pockets themselves are round and puck shaped and are about 4 inches in diameter. Also of note they are vegan. I picked these up at my local HMART.

Posted in Chinese, Dim Sum, Frozen Dumpling Review, Uncategorized | Leave a comment