I'm consistently amazed by the quality of the Chinese food scene in Boston. You'd think that compared to, say, New York, it couldn't hold a candle, but this is not the case. I don't want to prolong the somewhat silly rivalry between the two cities, but I'm going to anyhow by saying this: Boston's got Sichuan Restaurants that put even the best in New York to shame, and that includes those in Flushing.
Wanna talk steamed dumplings or Northern Chinese cuisine? Boston's where it's at. Sure, you may have to drive to North Cambridge or a suburb to find it, but all good things are worth the journey.
With a recent visit to Dumpling Cafe in Boston's Chinatown, I've added xiao long bao—the Shanghai style broth-filled dumplings—to the list of Chinese-foods-I-must-eat-when-I-visit-Boston, and I'd like to thank Slice queen Meredith Smith for turning me on to it.
Lest I incite a riot, let me temper my stance by admitting that I've yet to try every soup dumpling in New York (an end goal I am arduously working on), but the ones at Dumpling Cafe, listed as Mini Steamed Buns with Pork ($5.95), are definitely the best I've had thus far anywhere. It's particularly surprising because as a Taiwanese restaurant, you'd expect great dim sum-style dishes (and they've got'em), but not necessarily perfect soup dumplings. The ones here have skins that are tender and pliant with just enough chew, thin, but not so thin that they risk breaking and spilling precious soup before they get to your mouth.
The broth is rich and salty with a slightly sweet flavor and the aroma of pork, ginger, and a hint of sesame oil (unusual in this kind of dumpling). They come stuffed to the brim with juice, so the traditional method of consumption—placing them on a spoon, nibbling a small hole, and sucking out the hot broth—is totally necessary.
According to Meredith and Boston correspondent Liz Bomze, the other dumpling-like creations are also stellar, though the only ones I've personally tried were a special of pan-fried buns stuffed with duck meat ($6.95), which were excellent. Fresh, light and steamy with a crisp brown bottom and a tender, sweet duck filling.
I was suitably impressed with other dishes as well, though unfortunately, many of the Sichuan-style dishes listed as specialties were marred by the fact that they don't use Sichuan peppercorns. A hot bowl of Steamed Flounder ($12.95) comes served in a red-hot, oil-slicked broth. The fish is tender and flavorful and the broth is certainly hot enough, but without the numbing tang of Sichuan peppercorns, it's all a little bit off balance.
A much better broth-based dish is their Shredded Beef with Long Horn Pepper Noodles Soup ($5.95). Spicy and balanced, it's rich and filling with a significant amount of heat and fresh, springy noodles.
Duck tongues seem to be one of the chef's favorite ingredients, making their way into a few dishes. We tried the Sautéed Duck Tongue with Basil ($15.95), which had a sweet, almost Thai-style flavor to it. Delicious, though you have to be into duck tongue's gamy flavor and finickiness (each one has a hard strip of cartilage in it which has to be picked out).
It's gonna take a few more visits before I can form a strong opinion on the quality of all of their food, but for now, I'm just happy that I've found a new place to get my soup dumpling fix. It may even inspire me to ride up to Boston more often...
Dumpling Cafe Inc.
695 Washington Street, Boston MA 02111 (map); 617-338-8858 / 617-338-8859; dumplingcafe.com