I just can't find Santong Snacks.
Twice I traveled out Bellaire hunting for this famous dumpling house. I went to the addresses for its old and new locations (9384 Bellaire and 9938 Bellaire), but it is either hidden or not there. When I called, the woman who answered could not speak English and could not answer my questions. She only said, "not open." Because it is Thursday at noon - an unlikely time to be closed - I wonder if this "not open" status might be permanent.
My failure to find Santong Snacks is a metaphor for my dumpling hunt. I am finding a lot of decent dumplings, but the perfect dumpling seems impossible to find.
When I finally give up on Santong, I head for the nearest dumpling house -- Lai Lai Dumpling House. Although I have eaten there many times, I have not had their dumplings since 1987. Then, even as a poor college student, I was not impressed. Recently though, I read some positive comments about the dumplings. So I give them a second try.
I assume that Lai Lai's plate of 8 assorted steam dumplings has vegetable, pork, chicken, and beef dumplings, but it is hard to tell for sure. Each of the meat dumplings seems identical. The outside is an extremely thick, doughy lump of pasta. They have relatively artistic designs, but the dough is so thick that it settles in my stomach like a lead weight. Inside are ping-pong-ball sized lumps of finely compressed, slightly gelatinous, rubbery meat. If you threw these balls against the nearest wall, they would bounce right back to you. A woman next to me has ordered pan fried dumplings, and they appear to contain the same cylindrical lumps of meat.
These dumplings taste fine, and they are quite filling. But they lack flavor. And the meat is a bit of a mystery. Behind me, two businessmen are discussing a plan to import Chinese health products into the American health food market. They say that Americans need to be educated about healthy diets. Ironically, they too are eating the mystery balls of meat.
The vegetable dumplings are more interesting. They seem to contain egg, glass noodles, and cabbage (or maybe leeks), plus little bits of Chinese mushrooms that dominate the flavor. I am a big mushroom fans, but I always have found the taste of Chinese mushrooms to be odd and slightly unpleasant. Nonetheless, this filling at least reflects much more care, thought, and variety than the meat ping pong balls.
Lai Lai offers the usual condiments: soy, vinegar, sesame oil, chili pepper flakes. It also serves a nice, light ginger-based dumpling sauce. This adds flavor, which the meat dumplings need.
As I leave Lai Lai, I am only $6 poorer. My intellect is unsatisfied. But after 8 dumplings, my stomach is very full. I feel satiated. And I think I am going to need a nap.