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The free-form dumplings at Santong Snacksin Diho Plaza look like meatballs in floppy wrappers. But the spicy pork stays tightly fitted inside the thick and wonderfully chewy cloak of dough. And the pink pork is generously seasoned.
This humble, 11-table eatery has scuffed white walls, a dull tile floor and a cruddy acoustic-tile ceiling. For decoration, there's a fake plant and one pathetic print of a pink mountain. But at lunchtime, the place is always packed, and there's a steady stream of customers picking up food to go. Nearly all the patrons are Chinese-speaking. They don't come here for the atmosphere.
The secret of Santong's dumplings is freshness. They run a little factory in the back, so the dumplings are made continuously. The menu includes pork-and-leek, pork-and-cabbage, pan-fried and beef-soup dumplings (pork dumplings in beef broth). An order includes a dozen and costs $4.35. You make your own dipping sauce with the soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and red chile flakes in oil provided on each table.
Are they the best dumplings in Houston? Well, maybe. But if you thought the debates over the best sourdough in San Francisco, the best pizza in New York, or the best hot dog in Chicago were heated, then try claiming you know where to get the best dumplings in Houston. Every time I recommend the dumplings at Santong Snacks, somebody tells me about another place to go. And, in the interest of fairness, I usually follow their advice.
My former girlfriend swears fierce allegiance to the Dumpling King, 6515 Westheimer. The King's menu boasts 19 different dumpling choices. But when pressed to explain why the dumplings are better, she always ends up praising the quality of the do-it-yourself dipping sauce. When you order dumplings at the Dumpling King, the waiter brings you a collection of jars. They contain ginger, garlic, rice wine vinegar, ground chile peppers, soy sauce and sesame oil. From these ingredients, you mix your dip the way you like it.
The highly trained journalists at the Houston Press differ on dumplings, too. Our assistant Night & Day editor likes the homemade dumplings at that bastion of hipness, Jenni's Noodle House, 2130 Jefferson. I know Jenni's mom makes the dumplings and all, but sorry, they never did much for me.
Meanwhile, our Night & Day editor likes Auntie Chang's Dumpling House, 2621 South Shepherd, a popular choice among Montrose residents. Auntie C. makes a tight little crescent-shaped dumpling with your choice of chicken, pork, beef, shrimp or spinach inside, and she also provides do-it-yourself sauces. But last time I visited, the six stainless-steel dispensers that contained the sauce ingredients were repulsively grubby. And while I was pleasantly surprised to find minced jalapeño in one, I had little use for the sweet orange sauce or prepared mustard in two of the others. Soy sauce, red chiles in oil and ginger were in the other three. Auntie delivers, so she will do in a pinch, I suppose.
When I arrived at the Press five years ago, the writers of the Cafe section were raving about Lai Lai Dumpling House, 9262 Bellaire Boulevard. In fact, we gave them Best Steamed Dumplings in our 2000 Best of Houston issue. Lai Lai serves a large oblong dumpling that is an especially good deal for the price. But unfortunately, the hot-dog-shaped fillings in these dumplings have a bad habit of escaping from their doughy blankets and slip-sliding across plates and tables.
Lai Lai Dumpling House is in the same shopping center as Santong Snacks out on Bellaire. I've always called the center Dumpling Plaza, though the real name is Diho Plaza. One day I asked a lunch patron at Santong who spoke both English and Chinese if she thought Santong had the best dumplings in Houston. "No," she said. "Lai Lai has the best dumplings."
"So then why are you eating lunch at Santong?" I asked in bewilderment.
"Because Santong has the best egg noodles," she said with a smile.
For me, the dumplings at Santong are the draw, but the egg noodles are indeed awesome. On the menu, they're called beef soup noodles. If you love noodles and dumplings equally, order one bowl of beef-soup noodles and one bowl of beef-soup dumplings, then split them between the two bowls. Of course, you'll end up with two bowls of soup, so bring a friend.
I figured the way to resolve the Lai Lai-versus-Santong debate was with a taste test. A friend of mine was throwing a party, so I purchased an assortment of dumplings at each restaurant. While I was at it, I checked to see if any of the other Chinese restaurants in Dumpling Plaza sold dumplings. (There are around ten Chinese restaurants in this center, more if you count ice cream shops and bakeries.) And indeed, Chinese Fast Food, 9380 Bellaire Boulevard, had dumplings too.
My teenage daughter, who was assisting me in the Styrofoam-container juggling required by this expedition, liked Chinese Fast Food immediately because they give away a free tapioca tea with every food purchase. We got some pork and pork-with-celery dumplings there, along with two of the bubble teas.
At the party, I wrote the variety of dumpling on top of each container and placed them all out on a buffet table along with other attractive comestibles. As the guests filled their plates, I noticed that the average guest chose the lukewarm dumplings over all other foodstuffs, including caviar. But the Lai Lai-versus-Santong contest went unsettled. In a vote at the end of the evening, the clear winner was the pork-and-celery dumpling from Chinese Fast Food.