Happy Chinese New Year.
I have been thinking a lot about Chinese dumplings. And I have been hunting for Houston's best dumpling. This is the first in a series about that hunt.
Why would someone give so much attention to dumplings? Two reasons. First, for me, the dumpling is the perfect comfort food. There is something very comforting about these warm, pasta wrapped morsels.
Second, Chinese dumplings have an important history. At least 4,000 years ago, some Chinese cook mixed ground flour with water and made the first pasta. By 300 A.D., another Chinese cook took the pasta and wrapped it around a filling, making the first dumpling. A historical myth holds that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Itally, but most food historians now think that Italians independently created pasta about 200 years before Marco Polo visited China in 1266. However, Marco Polo may have introduced the dumpling to Eurpope. There is even evidence that the Italians were making ravioli by 1290, only shortly after Marco Polo's trip. Perhaps the food he brought back from China was not the noodle, but the dumpling.
The hunt for Houston's best dumpling is a daunting task. Houston has at least 390 Chinese restaurants, plus other restaurants that make dumplings. I can't try them all, and I probably will never know about some little authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurant that really does make Houston's best dumpling. But I can try.
There are several techniques to narrow the search for dumplings. One clue is when a restaurant is so serious about dumplings that it puts the word "dumpling" in the name. There are four Houston restaurants named after the dumpling: Lai Lai Dumpling House, Doozo Dumplings & Noodles, Dumpling King, and Aunti Chang's Dumpling House. Another clue comes from various people posting on my favorite populist food review website, www.b4-u-eat.com. Many of the claim to have found the "best dumpling" in Houston. I have investigated those claims. And sometimes, finding a good dumpling is just the result of good fortune.
To start, Lai Lai Dumpling House, despite its name, can be crossed off the list. It is like Berryhill Hot Tamale; the tamales for which it is named are nowhere nearly as good as its famous fish tacos. For over 20 years, I have known that Lai Lai's dumplings are not very good; rather, its best dishes are its famous, cheap, giant plates of hot, flavorful noodles.
Next, I turned to the place that many downtown workers claim serves Houston's best dumpling. Doozo Dumplings was once known as the "yogurt shop in the Park" but is now more commonly known as that "dumpling place in the Park." Consider these laudatory comments posted on b4-u-eat:
"these things are incredible."
"Best dumplings Ive [sic.] ever had and best place for lunch downtown period."
"By far the best dumplings in town."
Doozo began as a frozen yogurt stand in the Park Mall. The Chinese proprietors put up a little sign advertising a dumpling special. Within a year, the yogurt shop became known as the "dumpling shop" and the line for dumplings began to stretch throughout the mall.
I have been to Doozo many times, and I have tried every dumpling they sell. The dumplings are quite good, but not Houston's best. One problem is that the pasta is a little too thick and doughy. A bigger problem is that the fillings have only minimal flavor. Its best filling is probably Doozo's veggie dumpling, which contains greens and tiny glass noodles. The filling has a nice texture, but not much flavor.
My guess is that Doozo is so popular because of its fantastic dipping sauce -- especially the famous "extra spicy sauce." This sauce is a mixture of soy, possibly some vinegar, sugar, and lots of chili pepper. The sweet and spicy sauce is so wonderful that it is easy to ignore the dumpling, which becomes merely a sauce delivery device.
Doozo's dumpling and sauce combination might be one of the best cheap eats in downtown. But Doozo is not great because it does not give enough respect to the dumpling itself. Any place that serves this many dumplings in the short noon hour has to cut some corners, and it shows. The powerfully spicy sauce covers up the lack of serious time and effort in making the filling. I am not trying to downplay the importance of dumpling condiments, such as Doozo's outstanding sauce. But it is the dumpling that should be the star, not the supporting cast.
NEXT: Dumpling King and Auntie Chang's.