Have I mentioned to you guys how much I love Serious Eats? Should you not know what that is (on the random off-chance that THIS is the only food blog you read), let me explain. Serious Eats is a food blog, but in a big, big way. It was created by acclaimed food critic Ed Levine, and as the name suggests they are serious about food, with daily recipes, book reviews, videos, and restaurant reviews. I got into Serious Eats because of their Food Lab column, in which J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, formerly of America’s Test Kitchen, de- and re-constructs recipes for ultimate tastiness. What can I say, it appeals to the science nerd in me. But I STAY with Serious Eats, well, for lots of reasons, but particularly because they often do features on Boston-area restaurants and food, giving me ideas for things to try and write about here. Like this one.
Now, if you’ve been a loyal reader of this blog for some time, you may remember the first time I tried soup dumplings. Truly that was a magical feast of porcine wonder. Yet here was Mr. Lopez-Alt claiming that not only were these xiao long bao better than any others served in Boston, they were the best he’d had anywhere. What was to be done but to give it a try? I gathered my intrepid dumpling crew – The Goog and The Sisters Sacchetti, with the additions of Jake, Mr. Menace, and Gary – and off we headed to Chinatown to see what delights The Dumpling Cafe had to offer us.
And oh, what delights there were!
Rather than being coy, and making you wait until the end of this tale to find out if Serious Eats did me right and the soup dumplings lived up to the hype, let’s get it out of the way first. THE SOUP DUMPLINGS WERE AMAZING. Tender little morsels of pork tucked into a thin-skinned dumpling and surrounded by a marvelously fatty, ginger and garlic flavored broth. Outstanding – you could just get six steamer baskets full of these and be in heaven, unless you hate dumplings, in which case there is something wrong with you and you should really see someone about this terrible affliction.
But that wasn’t all that Dumpling Cafe had to offer! With so many traditional Taiwanese dishes to try, our intrepid band did the only thing we could possibly do, and ordered as many dishes as it seemed humanly possible to eat.
For appetizers, in addition to the dumplings, we had:
More dumplings! But they were different dumplings. These were pan-fried duck dumplings, and they were also quite tasty, though not quite as shockingly good as the soup dumplings. Fluffy, light and pleasant, but greatly improved, as we discovered later, by the addition of sauces from other dishes.
Grilled duck tongues! Or, as the menu called them, duck tongus. (I really love Chinese restaurant misspellings and I’m afraid you’re going to have to indulge me in the litany of those from the Dumpling Cafe. Far from detracting from my restaurant experience, I think these little mistakes really enhance it.) As you can see, they are served on a stick. Everything on a stick is delicious, right? Well, to be fair, I think I liked these more than the rest of our party. They’re sort of rich and fatty, but a bit
of work because, much to the surprise of everyone at the table, ducks have a bone running through the middle of their tongues! (Of course, had we paid more attention to the very article that brought us to the restaurant, we’d have known that.) I have no idea why this is, since my preliminary research leads me to that other Serious Eats article (my other favorite column, Chi Chi Wang’s amazing “Nasty Bits.”) or information about duck calls. Either way, I think some of my dining companions were a bit put off by the fiddly little bones, but I liked the tongues quite a bit!
The “Sticky Toffee Pudding” of the evening – grilled chicken skin. In this case, people seemed surprised at how much they loved it, which I thought was funny, since I thought it was a gimme that the best part of any bird is its crispy, delicious skin. While the grilled technique rendered the skin a bit less crisp, it was made up for by the flavorful marinade it had been soaked in.
My surprise love of the night was this:
No, those eggs aren’t bad, they’re preserved! The dish is Chilled Tofu with Preserved Egg and it was wonderful – the tofu sweet and light, the egg
unctuous and creamy. I was afraid I wouldn’t like the preserved egg (also known as a “Century Egg”) due to having read about the eggs smelling of sulfur and ammonia, but I didn’t notice any smell at all and the taste was complex and rich, like the Platonic egg, a good contrast to the blander tofu.
Odd as the Century Egg was, it was not nearly as strange as the appetizer that we thought would be the most Western – the Taiwanese Meatball. When we ordered it, we’d expected little meatballs, something like what you’d get in an Italian Wedding Soup, served in a tasty sauce. The menu said it came with grary, which we surmised was meant to be gravy, although it provided an amusing nickname for Gary for the evening. Imagine our surprise when this arrived, put in front of us with the single word “pork”:
We were, to say the least, puzzled. We confirmed with the waitress that by pork she meant meatball. She had. We dug in.
It was…surprisingly tasty, though the gumminess of the gelatinous rice…shell? I guess? was a little intense. However the bits of pork and mushroom inside were deliciously meaty, and the “grary” was bright and pungent and not as sweet as it looked. Elise declared that if the chicken skin were the “back seat of the car dish” and the xiao long bao were the “girl you take home to mother dish” then the meatball was like a weird cousin that everyone is a little nervous to have over but who turns out to be kind of interesting. I thought about it and decided that weird uncle seemed more fitting, and thus Weird Uncle Meatball was born. Later research revealed that Weird Uncle Meatball is a traditional dish also known as bawan. Research also revealed that not all bawan are as gelatinous as Weird Uncle Meatball was. For all of that, as I said, he was quite tasty and worth the adventure – just be prepared for the oddity.
Tune in later this week for the second installment – our entrees!