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.