Nearly every culture has some kind of dough stuffed with meat – El Salvador has pupusas. Mexico has tamales. Russia has piroshky. Some cultures even have two or three versions of meat-stuffed dough. Chinese cuisine is a great example. There’s the hum bao, a doughy ball with a center of sweetened pork; jiaozi, dumplings in steam or fried variations; and the dim sum appetizer, shumai. The fillings, textures and ingredients differ, but the concept is the same: meat tucked inside something steamy and delicious. With the chill here (finally!), I went looking for soul-satisfying comfort food and wound up at four Chinese restaurants. Read on.
North China Garden
2303 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-572-5106, northchinagarden.com
At least a few times a week, it’s dumpling-making day at North China Garden, a nine-year-old restaurant on the edge of the Sixth Avenue neighborhood that specializes in family-style Chinese-American food. It’s the kind of place for quick take-out or a fuss-free meal of standard Chinese dishes.
Andy Yee, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Jenny Yee, makes dumplings from scratch in the kitchen, turning out about 1,000 a week purely for restaurant orders. That doesn’t include the restaurant’s banquets or catering. Scroll down to see a photo gallery from News Tribune photo editor Joe Barentine, who stopped in last week to photograph dumpling making day at North China Garden.
An order of six steamed dumplings ($5.95) carried the appearance of hand-crimped dough – Yee’s fingers at work. The dumplings were plump pockets, crescent shaped and filled with the trifecta for perfect Chinese eating: ground pork, ginger and scallions. Although they’re my favorite on the menu, the Yees say their potstickers – fried dumplings – are just as popular, or maybe even more so.
9701 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-581-0102
Squished between a chiropractor and a Korean restaurant in a shopping mall full of Korean restaurants and a Korean grocery store, Tacoma Szechuan produces some of the most interesting – and highly spiced – Chinese food in the region, including unusual dishes such as Chong Gin hot chicken, a dish that delivers a tongue-numbing sensation from sichuan peppercorns.
The handsome restaurant – which once was called Three Sisters after the sisters who owned it – recently changed ownership. Adan Oei, who worked at the restaurant for two years as a server, now runs the restaurant, which still has the same chef, who has worked there for six years.
Steamed dumplings ($6.99) at Tacoma Szechuan should begin every meal – a dozen crescent-shaped dumplings looked to be handmade, tightly crimped in a dough that came with the slightest satisfying chew that broke to a loose mixture of ground pork, ginger and scallions. A dredge through the accompanying chili sauce left my fingers and the dumplings streaked orange. Perfect.
711 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-471-8982
When Lobster House opened, it was a pleasing moment for Tacomans long in search of dim sum, a category of eating that had been missing from our dining landscape. Along with a robust Chinese menu, the restaurant offers a small dim sum menu, which diners order from a server because they don’t have a cart roaming the dining room as many dim sum restaurants do. Owner Michael Mac, who also owns the New Hong Kong Dim Sum Restaurant in Seattle’s International District, opened the Chinese restaurant in October 2011 in the middle of the Lincoln District, a neighborhood more known for Vietnamese food.
While I think the restaurant does fine food, I’ve had inconsistent experiences there. On a recent visit, shumai dumplings ($2.75) tasted sulfuric – the wrappers barely covered hard lumps of salty ground pork. Previously, they were much more soft, the wrappers just fine.
What I recommend at Lobster House is not the shumai, but the hum bao, soft paper-white buns (three for $2.75) cracked to sweet, pork centers colored brown, the filling more savory than that too-sweet, day-glo orange stuffed bao you might hate as much as I do.
1126 Commerce St., Tacoma; 253-627-1859
I’ve had hits and misses at Shanghai House, a restaurant that looks a little worn around the edges that’s next door to my favorite place for tea in the city, Mad Hat Tea Company. While I haven’t explored much of the menu, I enjoyed the steamed Shanghai dumplings ($6.95). These are orbs of ground pork covered with a slightly chewy wrapper. They arrived in a steam tray displayed on a cabbage leaf. The texture is tougher, more hearty than the crescent-shaped cousin dumpling. They’re steamed to order, so expect a 10-15 minute wait. Our server kindly warned us.
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and the News Tribune pays for all meals.