Sunday, July 06, 2008

Chinatown Crawl Part 1 (Fu Fu, Classic Kitchen, Lai Lai)

From 11:30 to 3:30 today, Jenny (aka neverfull) led a Chowhound group on a crawl through the Bellaire Chinatown. (Neverful has a longer account here.) Ostensibly, our purpose was to find the best soup dumplings.

But we found ourselves branching out beyond dumplings. Along the way, we encountered many foods, strange and wonderful.

What is a soup dumpling?

A soup dumpling is a triumph of architecture. The dumpling is not in soup. Rather, the soup is in the dumpling.

You have to have a strategy to eat soup dumplings. If you cut it or bite into the side first, you lose the soup. My daughter tried it and had a dumpling-full of soup pour down her shirt. Many soup dumplings are too large, and too hot, to eat whole.

My strategy was to bite a small hole and slurp out the soup. Then I ate the dumpling like a normal dumpling.

My criteria for judging most dumplings is:

(1) texture of the skin,
(2) flavor of the filling, and
(3) flavor of the sauce on the side.

But for soup dumplings, the criteria is a little different:

(1) texture and architecture of the skin (including how well it holds soup),
(2) flavor of the filling, and
(3) quality of the broth.

Soup Dumplings at Fu Fu Cafe, Classic Kitchen, Lai Lai Dumpling House

The best skins -- and the best all-around soup dumplings -- were at Fu Fu Cafe in the Dun Huang Shopping Center.

We had very few broken dumplings at Fu Fu. The skin was sufficiently thick and doughy to hold in the soup. The texture was slightly chewy, but not at all rubbery.

The best meat fillings were in the soup dumplings at Classic Kitchen in Sterling Plaza. The meat had strong flavors of ginger and green onions. But at Classic Kitchen we had the heartbreak of quite a few broken dumplings. The skin just was not up to the task of holding in the soup.

The soup dumplings at Lai Lai Dumpling House in Diho Plaza had skin problems.

First, the skins were rubbery, tasting as though they had been frozen.

Second, the dumplings were packed two closely together. Many stuck together, causing us to lose the soup when we pulled apart the dumplings.

But I tried one dumpling that retained its soup. Of all the soup dumplings we tried, Lai Lai's dumplings had the best broth. It was rich and viscous and full of flavor. The filling was good too.

If Lai Lai's insides could marry Fu Fu's skin, the product would be the perfect soup dumpling.

Fu Fu's Pan-Fried Dumplings

I had one other major discovery at Fu Fu Cafe. The pan-fried dumplings had a fascinating, smoky flavor. Jenny speculated that the smoke came from the oil in the hot wok. The smoke migrated inside the dumplings through two large holes left in each side and flavors both the meat and skin.

The skins of these pan fried dumplings are not as glorious as the pan-fried dumplings across the street at Sandong Noodles. But their unique smoky flavor makes them worth trying.

Chinese Donut Breakfast Taco

Jay Francis spotted something odd on one of the tables at Classic Kitchen.

This strange dish was a weird mixture of Mexican, Chinese, and French food. On the outside was an ordinary flour tortilla. Inside was a long strip of fried dough, much like an unsweetened French crueller donut. Also inside the tortilla were scrambled eggs, cilantro, and a sauce of sweetened vinegar.

I never caught the name of this dish. Apparently, it is popular for breakfast. Which seems like the best time to eat a Chinese donut breakfast taco.

Fusion food indeed.

Next - Part 2: The Crawl continues at Sichuan Cuisine, Jungle Cafe

Update: Tinyhands found this link for how to make soup dumplings. Now we know how to get the soup inside the dumpling.


Anonymous said...

holy cow! how many restaurants did you hit? my stomach would never make it all the way-

glad you made it to fufu! i was getting worried that it was overlooked on your big dumpling hunt.

i'm so glad you are exploring the great cheap eats of chinatown. i also recommend Noodle House 88 next to Fufu for great Indonesian.
QQ Cuisine next to FuFu has some great appetizer dishes (its menu is so similar to Fufu's I wonder if its a sister restaurant?),
China Gourmet (in the Dynasty Plaza) for Taiwanese.

I could go on and on about Vietnamese, Malaysian but I know it takes time to eat through all these places :P Keep up the great work w/the blog!

Anonymous said...

alright! you have triggered my attention big time with this one. soup dumpling? love the idea but it looks exactly how you stated - being either too big, hot or whatever.

sounds perfect for a canape or a soup course if the size is right. i need some practice but maybe i can dig something up for thursday...

neverfull said...

i love how different our blog postings are from the same experience. you left out the drama and focused instead on educating your public which is very admirable. your camera work is getting really awesome too.

to more culinary adventures!

tinyhands said...

The only thing I would add to this is that the tortilla on the chinese breakfast burrito was fresh. That was no store-bought/frozen bread. It was much better than I imagined.

Cory said...

I'm very sorry that I couldn't make it.

Looks like fun was had by all.

anonymouseater said...

Anonymous: We went 6 restaurants and food stores. It's a matter of pacing.

rr: It must be hard to get the soup in the dumpling. But if anyone can do it, I know you can.

tinyhands: Yeah, I left out how much everyone liked the Chinese donut breakfast taco. I loved the flavor of the tortilla, the donut, and everything else in it.

neverfull: Good point. Invidual perspectives are everything. The idea of objective experience is a myth. Thank YOU for so many culinary adventures and for getting us organized.

neverfull said...

@ rr and anonymouseater- broth is mixed with gelatin and then chilled to make an aspic. the aspic is diced then added to the pork dumpling filling. aspic melts when cooked and voila! soup!

Anonymous said...

From when my aunts taught me to make it, they used the knuckles of beef bones or strictly the carcasses of chickens to basically make a double stock, but instead of skimming it, the boiled it hard (yeah, any french chef would pretty much die) and let all the fats re-emulsify so that when it cools it'll just gel over. Then they mixed the cooled stock in with ground pork before wrapping the xiao long bao.

I've done the same thing in an agnolotti with parm broth and ground veal. Turned out pretty good. I imagine it would work also if you made a flavored broth and added olive oil and boiled the fats into that. Then you could sorta have that olive oil taste to it...

tinyhands said...

Here's a link to an excellent chef-blog describing how to make XLB --

Jaden's Steamy Kitchen is a great blog whether you cook or not.

anonymouseater said...

Thanks for all the explanations of how to make them. I posted tinyhands' link to Jaeden's steamy kitchen as an update at the end of the post.

by Persis said...

Thank you for the xiaolongbao (soup dumpling) recommendations! I've just relocated to Houston and can't wait to try the places you've mentioned.

Having lived abroad for over 10 years, I've resorted to perfecting my own jiaozi (dumplings). My kitchen turns into a "jiaozi factory" every month, since as you probably know, there is no such thing as making a dozen or so dumplings! They freeze so well too.

Thanks again for the xiaolongbao recommendations. Jiaozi I am happy to do at home, but not xiaolongbao - not without helpers at least. said...

It can't work as a matter of fact, that's exactly what I consider.