My heart sank a little last September when North Cambridge's Qingdao Garden announced that it would be closing down temporarily for renovations, but I did what any other devotee would do: I went in for one proverbial last supper and before leaving grabbed a bag of their famous pork and leek dumplings ($5.75/dozen eat-in; $15/50 frozen) to keep in my freezer. Sort of like a bear storing up for a long winter.
Then came the bad news. The re-open was delayed beyond the projected three-month hiatus due to "unexpected issues" (chef-owner Wen Xiang later told us that one of the contractors had swindled him out of a lot of money). For months there was no update. The restaurant remained a half-finished construction zone, and if they have caller ID I'm in trouble, because I probably called everyday during the month of January to get a status update, but to no avail. In the meantime, I'd run out of dumplings, and every day that it snowed—which happened roughly once a week in January—I dreamed of tucking into a bowlful of my other favorite dish: the Boiled Fish with Fiery Sauce ($10.75).
I used to wonder how many orders of the stuff they sold a night, because I'll be honest—the term "boiled fish" doesn't do much for me. But the visual (and these days, word of mouth) seems to be all the endorsement it needs; as I ladled out a portion of the dark, rich-looking broth chock-full of tilapia fillets, celery, cabbage, dried chiles, cilantro stems, hot broad bean paste, and a pile of citrusy Sichuan peppercorns, a pair of older ladies at the next table who'd just finished their dinner ogled at me and stopped by on their way out to ask what I was eating. They were jealous.
The dumplings, on the other hand, need no introduction. They have a cult-like following, which is to say that everyone I know who eats at Qingdao leaves with a bag on their way out. The handmade skins are thick and sturdy enough to keep the filling's savory juices locked in—pork and leek are best, but the Three Delight with Shrimp is also excellent—but supple, springy, and surprisingly delicate to eat.
Unfortunately, the frozen dumplings aren't yet available. The kitchen has been so busy feeding the crowds of Qingdao-starved fans that they haven't had time to make a surplus for take-away. But Xiang assures that they will, and as long as I can go eat them fresh at the restaurant, that's good enough for the moment.