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Falling For It

The name inspires groans, but the delicious Humpty Dumpling is sitting pretty

The Humpty Dumpling Caféhad its work cut out to overcome some major biases on my part. First, there's the restaurant's name. I hate it. I mean, I really, reallyhate it. It was, I think, Thoreau who said, "Beware all restaurants bearing overly cute names." Then there's the poem that decorates the wall (and menu) of the restaurant:

Humpty Dumpling lay on the wall
Humpty Dumpling has a great fall
All chef menu
All chef special
Can't find him anymore

Hauntingly enigmatic, allusive in its meanings, the poem keeps me awake at night, as I attempt to puzzle its postmodern complexity. Finally, there's the menu itself. My problem is not with the menu's selections, mind you, but with the mere fact that Humpty Dumpling has one at all. In a traditional dim sum parlor, the dumplings and other goodies are served off rolling carts, and you simply point at the items that you want. Now as much as I love tradition, not to mention the awkward interplay between myself and the generally non-English-speaking dim sum dispensers, I grasped, after careful consideration, the upside of this menu concept.

The very idea of a menu is anti-dim sum. But Humpty Dumpling owner Wenny Cui proves that some traditions are best ignored.
Deron Neblett
The very idea of a menu is anti-dim sum. But Humpty Dumpling owner Wenny Cui proves that some traditions are best ignored.

Consider:

You know what you're getting. Despite my best linguistic efforts, I'm never entirely certain what I'm eating when employing the pick-and-point system. No such problem with a menu.

It's easier to pace yourself. Often with the rolling cart, I grab too much off the first cart -- "I'll have one of those, one of those and, oh yeah, two of those" -- so that when subsequent carts arrive with new selections, I'm already stuffed. With a menu, I can order a couple of items every few minutes or so, allowing for a steady flow of food. In addition, I can eat my selections in the order the dim sum gods demand: steamed dumplings first, followed by fried, and then, if eating capacity allows, an order of noodles.

Dumplings and other items straight from the kitchen are generally hotter and fresher than those that may have made a circuit or two around the room on a cart.

Like the lottery, you play the numbers at Humpty Dumpling; unlike the lottery, there are a lot of winners. But first let me tell you which numbers to avoid: Specifically steer clear of Nos. 20 and 21, the curry meat pie and the golden chicken pie (both $2.75 for three). Served lukewarm, the pies are supremely uninteresting, little more than heavy pastry and scant fillings. Also skip No. 59, the dumpling soup ($2.95 small, $7.95 large). The dumplings themselves are good, but the broth has the look -- and, alas, the flavor -- of dishwater. (If you really want soup, check out No. 60, the hot and sour soup, which is tastier and a better deal to boot -- $1.50/$5.25.)

Other than those, though, you're safe playing the numbers. Allow me, like some betting service, to suggest a few (free of charge, of course): Among the steamed items, No. 1, the steamed shrimp-and-pork dumplings ($2.75 for four); No. 7, the succulent "four-flavor" dumpling (shrimp, pork, egg and veggie, $3.25 for four); and No. 14, the "little juicy steamed bun" (3.75 for four), are all worthy of your consideration. But my heart (and palate) belong to No. 11, the pork shau mai($3.25 for four), "open-faced" dumplings filled with a flavorful and juicy mixture of pork and mushrooms; No. 9, the "lovely green dumplings" ($3.75 for four), doughy darlings, stuffed with a lively snow pea filling, that more than live up to their name; and No. 15, the special "shark's fin bun," a delicate steamed bun filled with an ever-so-tasty mixture of shark's fin and crabmeat. (At $3.75 for four, I suspect more crabmeat than shark's fin, but never mind; they're still delicious.)

Then there's the fried stuff. No. 6, the "golden fried" meat dumpling ($2.75 for four), is a solid rendition of a classic, but let me direct your attention to some items you may never have sampled. Take the deep-fried taro turnovers ($2.75 for two), for example. Inside a crispy taro crust there's a creamy filling of pork, mushrooms and taro, an exceedingly tasty mixture. But perhaps best of all is No. 47, the panfried "Kong-Nan" chicken ($3.25). "Isn't that terrific? It's a creation of our chef, Guo Cui," the manager told me, with understandable pride, when he saw me relishing a second order. Well, yes, it is terrific; a seasoned minced chicken mixture is breaded and fried along with -- and here's the kicker -- a thin piece of chicken skin, as crisp as the outer layer of a Peking duck. Wow. Dipped in my custom-made sauce concocted from an assortment of items provided on each table (I use a mixture of sweet soy, a touch of white vinegar and a bit of hot chili oil), it was devastatingly good.

If after your assortment of dumplings and such you're still hungry, try No. 58, the house special lo mein ($7.95). Over the years I've eaten more bad lo mein than I care to admit, but this is good. Loaded with beef, pork, chicken and what tasted like imitation crabmeat (ask them to leave it out), it has the wonderful smoky flavor that only a sizzling hot wok can provide.

And if after all this you're stillhungry (like me), Humpty Dumpling, against all odds, serves a couple of good desserts. The egg custard ($2.75 for three) was still warm when I had it; richly eggy but not too sweet, the pastry was nicely flaky. Also good was the mango pudding ($2.75) with a light, almost chiffonlike texture.

As you can see, Humpty Dumpling Café has caused me to reconsider some of my deeply held prejudices of what dim sum should and should not be. Good food can do that. I still hate the name, though. Nothing can change that.

Humpty Dumpling Café, 5211 Kelvin, (713)524-8888.

 
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