The very recently opened Lava Kitchen is a spare, no design, stripped down casual spot serving Sichuan dishes. The layout of the restaurant is such that every time the door opens a cold wind blows in from Broadway, luckily the specialty of the house is Malatang, a mildly spicy noodle soup. Malatang is a popular street food that originated in the Sichuan province and now is really big in Beijing. The base broth is mildly spicy and then before eating is further seasoned with lots of garlic, black pepper, Sichuan pepper, chili pepper, and sesame paste.
At Lava Kitchen you order food at the counter and are given a number and then return to the counter to pick up your food when your number is called. The food is served on red plastic trays; the soup comes in huge colorful bowls and dumplings are served on Styrofoam plates.
The Dumplings: In addition to Malatang, Lava Kitchen serves lots of dumplings: Wonton Soup, Cabbage & Pork dumplings, Chicken dumplings, Steamed Vegetable dumplings, Crab Roe & Pork bun, Pork bun, Vegetable bun, Pan Fried bun, Pan Fried dumplings and Red Bean bun.
Crab Roe & Pork bun – Based on the photos on the menu I initially thought these were going to be soup dumplings sprinkled with black sesame seeds, but instead they were steamed bread buns that were quite good. The bread is really light and fluffy and the pork filling was mild and savory, and although the crab roe made the inside of the bun yellow, I didn’t get any flavor contribution from the roe. The bottom of each bun had a little square of barely visible paper stuck to it, peal that off you don’t want to eat it. Each bun is about the size of a tangerine, so the four of these that come to an order are pretty filling.
Steamed Vegetable Dumplings – The dough of these vegan mouse shaped dumplings is an unsettling artificial looking, play-dough green. But once I got over that, I found these dumplings to be really good. They are packed with greens, cabbage and carrot and had a slight bitter cruciferous flavor that was balanced by the sweetness of the carrots. They tasted really fresh and life giving, I think I liked the vegetable dumplings more than the pork buns. Like the buns, the steamed vegetable dumplings were served sprinkled with black sesame seeds.
Dipping Sauce: Lava Kitchen provides a small sauce mixing station that has soy sauce, black vinegar, Sriracha, and the kicker, a tub of house mixed chili oil, sesame seeds and chili paste. I skipped the Sriracha and mixed soy, vinegar and house chili mash, to make a really tasty dipping sauce.
The Location: Lava Kitchen is on Broadway between 100th and 101st, just south of the Columbia University’s Morningside Heights neighborhood. While the East Village and Chinatown get the dumpling loving media attention, this area has an increasingly diverse number of dumpling eating options.