My daughter and I are sitting in a cheap Chinese restaurant in a depressing Westheimer strip center. The decor is sparse. The tables have inlaid Chinese designs that have seen better days. No customers are Asian American. The menu sounds Americanized and not the least bit authentic.
Why in the heck are we here? Last month, a reader said the steamed pork dumplings at the Feng Ling at 6437 Westheimer are the "best in the world."
That is not the sort of claim that can be left unchecked.
Steamed pork dumplings
Feng Ling's steamed pork dumplings look like art. They do not have the usual oblong dumpling shape, but are spherical with grooves to make them look like a flower blossom.
For steamed dumplings, the texture is remarkable -- thick, chewy, toothsome.
The ball of ground pork in the center is better than most dumpling fillings. It has a savory flavor from the addition of garlic, green onions, and a generous amount of ginger.
Feng Ling serves dumpling sauce -- soy sauce, vinegar, with long strips of fresh ginger. It is some of the best dumpling sauce in town. And for customers who need heat, they serve a separate jar of chili paste.
Best steamed dumplings in the world? Probably not. But these steamed dumplings have the best texture I have found among any steamed dumplings in Houston. The dumpling sauce is outstanding. This really is one of the best dumpling experiences in town.
Pan-fried pork dumplings
Although the wrapper and filling are similar, the pan-fried dumplings are not quite as good. They are not round, but oblong. They have a light brown crust on the bottom. It is not as crunchy as it should be.
My daughter usually prefers pan-fried dumplings, but not at Feng Ling.
These pan fried dumplings are well above average, but not on the same level as those at Sandong Noodle House.
The rest of the menu
Unfortunately, I had little interest in the rest of Feng Ling's menu. It reads like any other Chinese menu in Middle America, except that it includes some popular Vietnamese dishes such as salt toast shrimp.
The reader who had recommended dumplings also recommended squid, so I ordered spicy squid. The sauce was well balanced, but unexceptional, and not very spicy. Still, I was impressed with squid's tenderness. I also was impressed with the cutting technique used to make the blossoming tubes. Once again, the dish looked like art.
I asked the waitress what tool they used to cut the squid. She said, "It's easy," and made a few cutting motions in the air.
Feng Ling is held back by its depressing strip-mall location and its Americanized menu. It is not the sort of place I would take most of my friends, or even my wife. Yet I am impressed by some of the artistry that comes from the kitchen. Someone in back invests a lot of care and passion in making these cheap Chinese dishes for a small handful of non-Chinese customers. The commitment in these dishes touched a spot in my heart.
Most importantly, my dumpling hunt partner and I knew that we had found some of Houston's best steamed dumplings.