My hunt for a really good Chinese dumpling next took me to Houston's two other restaurants with "dumpling" in the title: Dumpling King and Auntie Chang's Dumpling House.
These two restaurants look very different. Dumpling King is in a dark little space in a dreary strip mall on Westheimer near Voss. A wall cuts off most of the light that would otherwise come through the small front window. The restaurant's interior is dingy and depressing. At lunch, there are few customers, although about half are Asian.
In contrast Auntie Chang's is on the second floor of a high class shopping center on Westheimer at Shepard, near River Oaks. The interior is spacious, with many open windows that look out over the city. The design is upscale particularly waves of fabric on the ceiling. And, unlike Dumpling King there are many customers, representing all races, except Asians.
You guessed it, my first impression is that Dumpling King is highly authentic and Auntie Chang's is not. In Chinese restaurants, there usually is an inverse relation between the quality of the interior decorating and the quality of the food. The interior decorating at Dumpling King is so horribly awful, that the food must be great. But then, the real proof is in the dumpling.
First, I should mention that my assessment focuses on a dumpling's three components: (1) the pasta, (2) the filling, and (3) the condiments. A great dumpling strikes a balance between the pasta and filling. If the pasta is too thick, it smothers the filling. If the pasta is too thin, it lacks the toothsome quality of a great dumpling. Additionally, the filling should not be an afterthought. The filling should be able stand on its own as a tasty food, without condiments. A good set of condiments adds the finishing touch -- some individualized extra flavor and spice to turn a great dumpling into a perfect dumpling.
At both Dumpling King and Auntie Chang's, I am immediately impressed with the condiments. Dumpling King offers jars of vinegar, ginger, soy, sesame oil, and chili paste. Auntie Chang's adds a yellow sweet and sour sauce and a second kind of chili peppers, and has all the other condiments except vinegar. This is a bit disturbing because vinegar is a crucial dumpling condiment. Nonetheless, at both restaurants, I am able to mix up condiments into my own spicy, flavorful sauce.
Dumpling King's plate of 10 assorted steamed dumplings is good, but not great. The pasta is a nice texture, but some of the fillings are indifferent. For instance, the pork and chicken dumpling fillings look and taste like lumps of boiled meat. The best of the bunch is a vegetable dumpling. I could not identify the ingredients, except greens and cabbage, but it tastes like the filling for a very good egg roll. I can imagine better vegetable dumplings, but these have more flavor than the veggie dumplings I have tried at other restaurants during my hunt.
Auntie Chang's plate of 8 assorted steam dumplings is no better, but no worse. These dumplings are somewhat smaller, and the pasta a bit lighter. Like the restaurant's decor, Auntie Chang's seems to take more care in creating the look of these dumplings. The pasta has an oblong shape with carefully constructed ridges on top. If you are a Star Trek fan, you would recognize that they look exactly like the alien spacecraft in the first episode of the first season of Next Generation. Coincidence? Or did Star Trek's set designers order Chinese take out.
Like Dumpling King, the fillings at Auntie Chang's seem a bit indifferent. The pork and chicken are tasteless lumps of meat. The shrimp dumplings look like they use miniature shrimp, which are usually frozen and inferior, instead of chopped fresh shrimp. And the veggie filling -- basically just greens -- is not as interesting as the veggie filling at Dumpling King. Overall, Auntie Chang's has a slight edge for the pasta, and Dumpling King has a slight edge for the fillings. At both places, the dumplings are just so-so on their own, but they improve greatly if you know how to mix a great sauce from the condiments.
Now I have exhausted all four Houston restaurants named "dumpling," and I am left wondering, surely there is a better dumpling in Houston? Surely some restaurant can make a more flavorful dumpling without having to add strongly flavored condiments? Surely the inside of a dumpling can be more interesting? But where can I find this elusive great dumpling?
NEXT: Alternative dumplings at Benjy's and Kubo's