There's no better place to find Chinese food in the US than Los Angeles, and there's no better place in L.A. to find dumplings than in the San Gabriel Valley, a huge collection of largely-Asian ethnoburbs in the eastern part of the county. Armed only with our empty stomachs and a modest dining budget, we traversed the highways and avenues in search of the area's very best dumplings.
I was on the hunt for particularly fresh-tasting and potently flavored fillings, all juicy and tender—the filling of meat dumplings should be fluffy, not dense. I looked for vegetable fillings that were fresh and snappy; tired cabbage and green onions are no friend of mine. I sought out wonton wrappers that were lissome and delicate and potstickers that crackled satisfyingly at their crisp bases. Over a hundred dumplings and dozens of miles later, I dazedly settled on the following list of must-trys: these are the truly outstanding dumplings of Los Angeles.
Best Wonton: Numb-Taste Wontons at Chengdu Taste
Long lines and lengthy wait times greet diners eager to try Chengdu Taste's distinctive take on Sichuan cuisine. The 'Numb-Taste' dumplings there are aptly named: halfway through the bowl of wontons, my mouth was tingling like it had fallen asleep. But rather than kill the taste buds, the numbness curiously has the effect of making everything taste slightly sweeter. Even the salty, impeccably crafted dumplings; even tea and water. Once the feeling goes away, you want to feel it again, and so you eat more. It's a strange, absorbing cycle.
The chili oil bath the dumplings come steeped in is a mix of savory, lingering sweetness and a stealthy, delayed heat. The thin wonton wrappers melt in your mouth as they slide, like silk, down the palate. The filling tastes richly of fatty pork, loosely packed together with hints of garlic and sesame oil.
Wonton Runner Up: Spicy Shrimp Wontons at Pine & Crane
Ok, so not all of the city's best dumplings are in the San Gabriel Valley. Open for nearly a year now, Pine & Crane has been treating grateful Silver Lakers to Vivian Ku's twist on mostly-Taiwanese cuisine. Here, the spicy shrimp wontons have a mild burn but are not going to scorch your face off. They're still drenched in chili oil, but the other flavors, like sesame, onion, and the juicy interiors of the wonton themselves, are really allowed to sing. The ground shrimp filling of the dumpling is the diameter of a quarter. The shrimp is fresh-tasting and gratifyingly tender with a slight, pleasant brininess. The remaining dough of the wrapper, which is so thin it's nearly transparent, enlarges the wonton fourfold.
Best Potsticker: 101 Noodle Express
The key to any good potsticker is a crispy bottom. And 101 Noodle Express, a slick-looking restaurant where everything feels lacquered, does the bottoms best. These dumplings are on the expensive side (over $9 after tax for an order of 10) but the texture is nearly perfect: salty dough with perfectly pliant tops, thinner walls that gave easily to the bite, with crunchy, golden brown bottoms. The crisp, caramelized undersides are complemented by the very juicy, tender pork filling; eat slowly, and be careful with your nice shirt. These things make a mess.
Potsticker Runner Up: Hui Tou Xiang
Hui Tou Xiang takes a clever approach to the crispy-bottom-potsticker theorem with their hui tou potsticker. Why, they asked, need only one side have that delicious crunch? Why not just flatten out the suckers and fry up both sides? The Hui Tou potsticker is shaped like a longhouse: narrow and rectangular, patted flat and sealed on the end, then browned on both sides. The pliant pork inside is pillowy soft and savory, not to mention the juiciest of potstickers we tried; with each bite, the clear, natural juices of the meat run down your chopsticks (or fingers). The dough, which is of moderate thickness, gives way easily after the initial crunchy bite. Is it cheating, like the all-edges brownie pan they used to sell on Skymall? Maybe, but more restaurants should start doing it this way.
Best Xiao Long Bao: Din Tai Fung
I know, I know: this place again. This Taiwanese chain is the late-90s New York Yankees version of the dumpling house: they're so rich, so famous, but they're also just so freaking good. The skin of these XLB is so thin and delicate that you actually can see the hot soup bulging out from the side of the dumpling, but not so thin that it breaks when you carefully lift one out of the steaming basket.
The tops are remarkably intricate, with two dozen or so small folds per dumpling. A tiny initial bite into the side of the XLB releases a hot wave of rich and savory pork soup. The meat inside is tender and spongy, tasting sweetly of ground pork, green onion, and a hint of ginger. Once it cools off, the rest of the dumpling, dressed with some black vinegar, can be popped into one's mouth and downed in a single satisfying bite.
Xiao Long Bao Runner Up: Little Shanghai Restaurant
This place isn't easy to find; it's in the corner of a food court that is, in turn, hidden in the corner of a huge strip mall. Once arrived, you will be amply rewarded with juicy pork xiao long bao, hot out of the steamer. They're almost as good as the ones at Din Tai Fung, but there's no 45-minute wait for a table, and you'll pay much less (after tax, $5.40 for an order of 10 as opposed to $9.27 at Din Tai Fung).
The meat is roughly of the same excellent quality: soft pillows of pork that are yielding and juicy, well-seasoned with ginger and onion. The wrappers on the dumplings at Little Shanghai are a bit more workmanlike: infinitesimally thicker, with twisting on the top that is not as finely crimped as those at DTF. The broth inside is rich and flavorful, but I have to admit the quantity is a bit low. If you're looking for a quick XLB fix and you don't mind that the dumplings are a little short on soup, head to Little Shanghai.
Best Veggie Dumpling: Pan-Fried Chive Pocket at Flavor Garden
I sometimes feel that vegetable dumplings are a waste of stomach space. But the jiu cai he zi at Flavor Garden are different. Listed as chive pockets on the menu, these little gems are small fistfuls of chlorophyll—brimming with garlic chives, a little bit of scrambled egg, and chopped up fun see (glass noodle). The dough around the chive pockets is quite thin and the edges are crunchy. Inside, the finely chopped chives, which have a delicate, slightly muted garlic flavor, are hot but still firm; not at all wilted or overcooked. The fun see adds a nice slickness to the texture and the scrambled egg literally holds the filling together, while adding a sweet earthiness to the flavor. About the size of a big golf ball, these dumplings are a crisp, fresh alternative if you're feeling a bit pork-ed out from your dumpling crawl.
Best Deep Fried Dumpling: Wu Gok at Elite Restaurant
Taro dumplings are fairly divisive in the dim sum world. Some are turned off by the element of creamy coldness to the mashed taro, but I happen to adore them. With good wu gok, like the ones at dim sum mainstay Elite Restaurant, the textures and tastes change not only with each bite, but within each individual bite: from the chunky, slightly-gooey middle made with ground pork, shrimp, shiitake mushroom, to the cool, inner layer of purplish mashed taro root that provides a coarse and slightly sweet earthiness. The finespun outer netting, made of taro and wheat starch, is deep-fried until it's flaky and delicate as blown glass.
The filling is predominantly porky; shrimp and mushroom play more of a supporting role. All three flavors sit together in a thick, savory gravy, protected by the outer layers. No other dumpling incorporates such variety of flavor of composition, and Elite does wu gok right. Har gow and siu mai get a lot of love (for the record, the har gow I had at Elite had good flavor, but had mealy skins and were falling apart) but I'd say that a well-crafted wu gok speaks more to the craftsmanship and technique of the chef.
Best Sheng Jian Bao: Kang Kang Food Court
Sheng jian bao are frequently referred to as "fried soup dumplings," which is partially true. Sheng jian bao literally means "raw fried bun" which refers to the manner in which they're prepared: they're grouped tightly together and placed raw on a hot, oiled pan so that the bottoms crisp up. Meanwhile, the tops are sprayed with water so that they cook through as well. Like soup dumplings, sheng jian bao are filled with meat and gelatin, which causes the delicious "soup" to form when heated up. However, sheng jian bao tend to be larger and the dough thicker, so that the consistency is more like a bao.
The Kang Kang Food Court sheng jian bao are as close to perfect as you'll find: well-fried bottoms with the satisfying crunch of a potato chip; tender, chewy tops, delicately twisted into a spire and sprinkled with black sesame seeds and green onions; and fluffy, well-seasoned pork. The generous pocket of savory soup in each dumpling is reminiscent of a good tonkotsu broth; particularly swiney and rich, with big globules of sweet fat.
Sheng Jian Bao Runner Up: Feng Mao Mutton Kebab
The sheng jian bao at this Koreatown hideout are a little bit of an oddity—they're delicious, for sure, but they're shaped like a football and the dough is bready, almost like a char siu bao. The filling, which is succulent ground pork, tastes of scallion, sesame, and garlic, with a bit of savory sherry-like sweetness. The bottoms are crunchy and well-fried; a nice complement to the stretchy, pull-apart tops. I skeptically asked the waitress several times, "are you sure these are sheng jian bao?" Each time, she said, "Yes. Yes, they are." Whatever they were, I enjoyed them immensely.
Best Fish Dumpling: Boiled Sole and Chinese Parsley Dumpling at Qingdao Bread Food
Maybe I have a soft spot for the people of Shandong province, as they tend to get dumped on a lot by Beijingers, but I'll be darned if this hole in the wall spot serving flavorful cuisine from the city of Qingdao doesn't serve some of the best food in all of L.A. The service is functional at best and English is minimal, so be prepared to do a lot of pointing and grunting if your Mandarin isn't up to snuff.
For your efforts, you'll be rewarded with the best fish dumpling you've ever had, and possibly the best dumpling, period. Boiled sole, flaky, supple, and rich while not at all fishy, comprises most of the dumpling filling. A healthy amount of cilantro adds bright pepperiness to the chopped fish. (If you're a non-cilantro eater, try the stuffed pork and leek dumplings instead.) The dumplings are wrapped in a skin that is maybe half a centimeter in thickness, and are boiled in well-salted water until the skin gives slight resistance to the bite, but just a little. These dumplings are satisfyingly chewy but not sticky or mealy. The kicker is the pungent, garlicky, tangy dipping sauce served as an accompaniment. It is, more or less, exclusively made of garlic and vinegar: it may cause your friends and loved ones to keep their distance for days. This was my favorite dumpling of all, and will be the first one I return to when I next venture out into the San Gabriel Valley.