Northern Cafe, University of Southern California, LA

Northern Cafe is an LA based mini-chain of Chinese restaurants that is expanding through Southern California.  Northern Cafes all appear to be counter service restaurants, where you order at a counter and are given a metal stand with a numbered card that you place on your table.  When your food is ready one of the staff bring your order to your table.  From what I can see checking out the different location’s web sites they all have a similar menu – an extensive list of dumplings, a selection of pancakes, around a dozen noodle dishes and around a dozen stir fry dishes.  I was at the University of Southern California for work and tried the branch that is just off the campus.  The dumplings at this location were great and I ended up eating there twice during the few days I was in town.

The Dumplings:  Northern Cafes serve a wide selection of boiled or pan-fried dumplings, a selection of steamed dumplings and have Xiao Long Bao and wontons, all of which are made in house.  The dumplings all seem to use the same wrapper, which has been described as “rustic” in some online reviews but is the thicker chewier Northern style wrapper.  This means the Xiao Long Bao are less delicate than the ones at Joe’s Shanghai or Din Tai Fung, but the pork filling is delicious, ginger scented and slightly sweet.  The USC location only had Western style soup spoons which do not work as well for eating soup dumpling as the taller sided Chinese soup spoons.  The boiled pork dumplings and the shrimp wontons with chili oil were both really flavorful, but I wish the chili oil had stronger spice kick.  

Of the four orders of dumplings I ate, the pan-fried fish dumplings were the star of the show, they were insanely good.   The white fish filling had what appeared to be scallions mixed into it and was very juicy, so each bite was like eating bouillabaisse soup.  The thicker wrappers showed their advantages for pan-frying, as they fried up crispy on the bottom but maintained their chewier texture and echoed the thick sliced grilled bread usually served with bouillabaisse. These dumplings were essentially a bouillabaisse soup dumpling.

The Location:  The USC location of Northern Cafe is at 2904 S Figueroa St between 29th and 30th just outside of the USC campus.  Most of the restaurants in this appear to be café style and cater to the student population.

Posted in Bao, Boiled, Chinese, Fish, Los Angeles, Pan Fried, Pork, Shrimp, Soup Dumpling, Xiao Long Bao | Leave a comment

Tom’s Dim Sum, Philadelphia PA

Tom’s Dim Sum is a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Dim Sum Factory mini-chain of restaurants serving Shanghai & Cantonese style dim sum.  In 2015 Tom’s took over the location of the Dim Sum Garden in the 11th street tunnel under the Convention Center, when the later opened a new location on Race street.  Turns out there is a long and litigious history between Tom’s and Dim Sum Garden and another Tom’s Dim Sum out in the suburbs (described here). 

I had seen a couple of really positive posts about Tom’s on Instagram and decided to try it out for a Saturday brunch.  Tom’s is not a classic Dim Sum palace where you choose dishes from carts that are pushed around the restaurant, but rather you order dishes from an extensive menu.  On the afternoon we were there the service was very slow and our noodle dish was delivered to the wrong table and promptly eaten by those patrons, who I guess had gotten hungry waiting for their own order to arrive.  Shortly after our noodles went astray we were delivered someone else’s Bok Chow.

The Dumplings:  We got the Pork Soup Dumplings which Tom’s is well known for, and steamed vegetable dumplings and the Shanghai Shumai.  The soup dumplings were the best of the trio, they were really flavorful and each had a full spoon of soup inside.  The soup was opaque and creamy, like a good Tonkatsu Ramen broth.  The dumplings were steamed close to perfection, the wrappers were soft and supple and stretched to the point I thought they would break open and spill their soup as I picked them up, but just maintained their integrity.  Unfortunately, the Shanghai Shumai were not as expertly steamed, they were over cooked to the point that the wrappers had started to dissolve.  The dirty rice and pork filling of these Shumai tasted great, with a full blast of umami, but I couldn’t get over the poor cooking technique.  The vegetable dumplings had a bright emerald wrapper and were stuffed with finely minced greens.  With a little dipping sauce they were pretty tasty.

The Location:  Tom’s Dim Sum is in the dank 11th street tunnel that goes under the convention center, right next to the China Town bus station.  Going there has a bit of a Blade Runner feel.

Posted in Bao, Buns, Chinese, Dim Sum, Philadelphia, Pork, Shumai, Soup Dumpling, Steamed, Vegan Recipe, Vegetarian, Veggie Dumplings, Xiao Long Bao | Leave a comment

Deluxe Green Bo, New York City

Manhattan’s Chinatown is getting busy again, although the restaurants close earlier than they used to, most are shut at 8:30 or 9pm. Not yet knowing this, we hit Chinatown around 9:30 looking for dumplings and found that all of our usual go-to joints were closed. The only place that was open was Deluxe Green Bo, which we have walked past a hundred times but never tried. I can’t believe that I have missed out on this place for so many years, their dumplings are brilliant.

Deluxe Green Bo is a small joint with several large round tables and a few four-tops, and has been serving up Shanghainese food since 1982. I think the reason that I haven’t stopped in before is that the windows are covered in menu pages and I couldn’t ever see into the restaurant when I passed by. But don’t make the mistake I did, head in and get the dumplings.

The Dumplings: The cryptically named “Steamed Pork & Crab Meat & Pork Tiny Buns” are Deluxe Green Bo’s soup dumplings, which were so good we ordered three steamers of them. These dumplings were perfectly steamed, so the wrappers stretched almost to the point of rupturing as I picked up the dumplings up, but they managed to keep their integrity. The dumpling wrappers enclosed a lot of unctuous soup that perfectly blended the pork and crab flavors. While the menu describes them as tiny, these soup dumplings are the usual standard size.

We also ordered a plate of the “Fired Tiny Buns (with Pork)” which are Sheng Jian Bao, a steamed bun that is pan-fried on the bottom and contains pork and pork gelatin, that upon cooking, turns into soup that makes the interior of the buns juicy. Since the early 1900’s, these buns have been of the most popular breakfast items in Shanghai. Despite the menu’s focus on “tiny” these buns were some of the biggest Sheng Jian Bao I have eaten. Deluxe Green Bo uses the thicker, Chinese sweet fluffy bread wrapper rather than the thin skins used at Shanghai’s Yang’s Fried Dumplings. The buns at Deluxe were amazingly flavorful, with a perfect blend of sweet, savory, porky and fried flavors, so good and totally irresistible. But after three steamers of soup dumplings these eight large buns were a gut bomb.

The Location: Deluxe Green Bo is on Bayard street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, on the north side of the street between Mott and Elizabeth streets. It is across the street from a bunch of desert places, but if you get a couple of plates of “tiny” buns you won’t make it to desert.

Posted in Bao, Buns, Chinese, New York City, Pan Fried, Pork, Shanghai, Sheng Jian Bao, Soup Dumpling, Xiao Long Bao | 1 Comment

The Jim, South Philly

During the pandemic bar owners Fergie Carey and Jim McNamara, of Fergie’s Pub and The Goat, along with Tony Rim of 1225 Raw and The Foodery opened The Jim in the old JC Chinese restaurant location.  They kept the old JC logo on the exterior, the very cool old rectangular bar and the dragon murals and now serve dumpling, noodles and Korean-style Chicken wings and have a good beer list and cocktails.  The Jim’s interior space is tiny and bunkerlike but they have outdoor seating along 8th street.  The place has a good vibe and the food is excellent – great old school American-Chinese food – and the waiters are on point about available vegan options, which include several dumpling and noodle options.  The Lo Mein noodles are classic and come served in an old-style cardboard Chinese take-out box.

The Dumplings:  The waiter told us that some of the dumplings are house made and some are brought in, but they are moving to making all their dumplings in house. My guess is that the pork and veggie dumplings are house made and the mandu style, kimchi dumplings are brought in.  The pork and cabbage dumplings were juicy, savory and very tasty, you can get them steamed or deep fried.  The kimchi and veggie dumplings were also stellar, a great funky, umami, spicy kimchi flavor.  We got a steamed order and a deep-fried order, both were great but I think the steamed version was best.  The dumplings are served in cardstock to-go boxes.

The Location:  The Jim is located at 1701 S. 8th St at Morris Street in South Philly.

Posted in Chinese, Kimchi, Korean, Mandoo, Philadelphia, Pork, Potsticker, Steamed, Vegan, Vegetarian, Veggie Dumplings | Leave a comment

Vanessa’s Dumpling, NYC, Pandemic Edition

I have reviewed Vanessa’s previously, but while I was in NYC recently I thought I would see how they were fairing in pandemic times. Thankfully the dumplings are still great but they seem to have lost their service mojo during the pandemic.

You still order from menus laying on the counter towards the back of the restaurant and place your order with the woman behind the counter who gives you a number. Your order number is still screamed out by someone behind the counter when your order is ready and the food is still served in plastic to-go containers, on a cafeteria tray. But in the pre-times the army of older women behind the counter were a highly efficient kitchen brigade slinging out a continuous stream of dumpling orders. On this visit there seemed to be mass confusion behind the counter, they got our order wrong and orders took forever to come out, there was a lot of yelling by the staff and stress amongst the customers.

The Dumplings: I got the boiled pork and cabbage dumplings which have a red cabbage colored wrapper. They were really tasty but so over cooked the wrappers lost their integrity. I think they sat after they were boiled and further steam cooked in the closed plastic container while the staff waited on our other orders. The pan-fried veggie dumplings were as great as always, a tasty filling with a spinach colored wrapper that was char grilled on one side.

The standout for this meal though was the Spicy Vegan Dumplings. These dumplings were charred on the bottom, which creates the great flavors from the Maillard reaction, and were caked in chilly crisps and sprinkled with cilantro. The vegan beef filling had a truly meaty texture and flavor and was pretty convincing. The dumplings were spicy but not overpowering, and really tasty. Go order these dumplings.

The Location: Vanessa’s Dumplings now has five location in NYC. We hit the original location at 118A Eldridge Street, just below Broome Street, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood.

Posted in Boiled, Chinese, Gyoza, New York City, Pan Fried, Pork, Potsticker | Leave a comment

Happy Veggie Restaurant, NYC

Happy Veggie Restaurant is a new to me, vegan Asian fusion restaurant in NYC’s Chinatown that opened during the pandemic. There is very little written about this restaurant on the web, but evidently they use vegan meats from Lily’s Vegan Pantry (ne May Wah Grocery). The menu is mainly Chinese, with some Malaysian and Thai influences and weirdly, a Beyond Burger and fries. I need to give it another try, but I think this will become one of my go-to vegan restaurants in NYC.

The Dumplings: the menu includes Homemade Spinach Dumplings, Fried Wontons, Homemade Buns stuffed with veggies, BBQ veggies, curry potato, taro, pumpkin or peanuts and Beijing Vegetarian Momo Buns. Unfortunately the day we stopped by they were out of dumplings and buns so we tried the Beijing Vegetarian Momo Buns and the Veggie Spam Musubi with Avocado. The momo buns were not Tibetan momos at all, but were Chinese Gua bao, the white fluffy sandwich style steamed breads. The bao were stuffed with vegan duck, which had a mild smoky flavor with hints of duck, julienned cucumber and a sweet Chinese BBQ style sauce. These buns were excellent, I highly recommend them.

The vegan spam in the musubi was a decent approximation of spam, but it wasn’t grilled enough. I like my spam to be seriously grilled so it is caramelized in the teriyaki sauce. The musubi was quite large and filling and was a solid effort.

Location: Happy Veggie Restaurant is in Manhattan’s Chinatown at 76 Mott Street, just south of Canal Street.

Posted in Bao, Buns, Chinese, Momo, New York City, Vegan, Vegetarian, Veggie Dumplings | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Izakaya, Japanese, Takoyaki | Leave a comment

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.

         

Posted in Dipping Sauce | Leave a comment

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