Tonight, my friends, I have been inducted into the glories of the less popular bits of the pig, the parts overlooked by bacon fanatics and rib aficionados. Tonight, thanks to Dan, Elise, and Valerie, I have seen the mysteries and the wonders of The Gourmet Dumpling House.
Nestled in the heart of Chinatown, the tiny restaurant can’t possibly hold more than 20 customers, but boasts a menu large enough to feed them all several times over. We had come to sample the more adventurous (to American palates) parts of that menu, though we still only scratched the surface of those offerings.
We started with the two appetizers my dining companions had enjoyed on a previous visit – pork soup dumplings and the chilled spicy pig ears. Let’s take a look at the dumplings first, shall we?
There they are, all nestled in the steamer basket! Also known as xiaolongbao, soup dumplings are little purses of dough filled with pork and broth. (It’s possible to get fillings other than pork, but it’s the most traditional.) This filling leads to an interesting dilemma in eating the bun. For one thing, it’s a bit too large to shove intact into the mouth; for another, the broth is initially too hot for such a technique to be a good idea anyway. However, simply biting the dumpling in half will result in losing the delicious soup from whence the dumpling’s name originates. The solution is to suck the juices out while biting, or as my companions called it, “make out with the dumpling.” (As it happened, this was a requirement for other food that we’d ordered.) This technique looks a bit odd, but allows the diner to fully enjoy the soup dumpling experience, one which I heartily recommend. The dumpling skin was thick and chewy, and the little pork meatball and broth inside were pleasantly salty and redolent of scallion. A tasty, gingery black vinegar sauce comes with them, but was not really needed – these were fantastic as is. (Bonus: click here for a cute and bizarre video featuring similar buns!)
Next up we have the chilled and spicy pig ears:
These are a favorite of my dining companions, so they were a little nervous about my reaction. Would I like them? Had they been talked up too much? This nervousness was probably enhanced by initial lack of reaction to the ears, but they were an experience that required processing. Did I like them? Yes, quite a bit actually, but it was hard to pin down what it was that made them good. Certainly the marinade was part of the equation; spicy, yes, but also earthy, almost like really good mushrooms. Let us not ignore, however, the ears themselves. As you can see from the photo they were very thinly sliced, with a clear distinction between the meat and the cartilage. Texture-wise these parts were quite different also – the cartilage, which looks like a rubber band in the photo, was rubbery in mouthfeel also. The meat was very tender to the point of being gelatinous. All of which sounds kind of gross, but was surprisingly enjoyable, almost addictive. Asian cooking calls for balance in texture as well as taste and temperature, and is generally willing to take that concept further than Western cooking.
Going from one end of the pig to the other, let’s take a look at the feet next!
These were my pick, because I’ve been eager to try them but reluctant to cook them myself mostly from the fear that I will screw it up and convince myself never to eat them again. I believe in trying weird foods as they are meant to be prepared, to give them a fair shake. As you can see from the photo, these were nearly impossible not to like, given the thick, glistening barbecue sauce they were swimming in. This was another food that required some rather indelicate handling – you try picking up an entire foot in a pair of chopsticks – and due to the sauce was unattractively messy to boot. Not first-date food, unless you are trying to send some very unsubtle signals to said date. The texture of the meat itself was very tender – clearly these tootsies had been braised for some time. It was also covered in very sticky, delicious fat, and some of the bones carried the added bonus of marrow for the truly dedicated. All told they were extremely delicious but tremendously filling – best shared, for sure.
One of Dan’s favored dishes is the Mustard Greens with Intestine and Blood Pudding Hot Pot:
Look at it steam! This is an insanely spicy dish, and another fine example of the different textures offered by authentic Chinese cuisine. The intestines looked like little tortellini to me, but are clearly identifiable as offal. They are exceptionally chewy and have a faint funk to them, a small olfactory signal that this is not your typical meat. It wasn’t bad – I had two helpings – but I could see it not appealing to the less adventurous palate, and why it would be served in such a spicy sauce. Blood pudding in this case was not sausage, but coagulated pork blood, cut into slices with a texture similar to firm tofu. The taste was of pure unadulterated meat essence, which makes sense, if you think about it. The mustard greens were a bit lost in the spice of the sauce, alas, but added a nice contrast to the springy intestines and soft blood.
I believe this was the Taiwanese-style Sauteed Rice Cake with Pork and Vegetables – the name was long so I was a bit unclear. Unlike the feet or the hot pot, there was little in the way of sauce or spice in this – just clear flavors of meat and vegetable, studded with the glutinous rice cakes. These have the consistency of very firm gummy candy and were a lot of fun to eat! They also provided a welcome respite from the heat of the hot pot and the fatty sweetness of the feet – almost a palate cleanser.
All told this expedition was well worth a trip to Chinatown – for you less adventurous eaters there was plenty of more typical American-Chinese fare on the menu that I hear is equally delightful. Thank you Dan, Elise, and Valerie for letting me into the club! (PS: I know that the others have also written about this spot on their blogs – and you should go read them anyway, because they’re great!)