The free-form dumplings at Santong Snacks in 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.
And predictably enough, one voice in the crowd disputed the results of the entire election on the grounds that her favorite dumpling maker wasn't represented. Doozo Dumplings in the food court of the Park Shops in downtown Houston serves the best dumplings in the city, she argued. She told me the woman who serves them is affectionately known to her customers as the Dumpling Nazi for her brusque manner of rushing people through the line.
Rather than resolving anything, the taste test and popular vote ended up making me feel like I had more work to do.
Why does democracy have to be so messy?
At noon, there were maybe 20 people in line at Doozo Dumplings & Noodles at 1200 McKinney, more than at any other eatery in the food court. I heard a woman in the back of the line tell her two colleagues about the Dumpling Nazi. She told them they should be ready to order and have their money out when they got to the front, or the cashier would scold them for the delay.
I stood to the side and watched the action. The cashier directed traffic with her extended right hand. She took the money of the person in front of her, directed the next two to pick up their food and said "Next" to a person far down the line. She wasn't exactly gracious, but I don't think she was all that mean.
I got an order of assorted dumplings. They were freshly made in the pleated gumdrop shape called a beggar's purse. There were vegetable dumplings, which contained some kind of bland chopped greens, and pork dumplings, which were more to my liking. The passable premade dipping sauce comes in little plastic containers.
Doozo's dumplings are extraordinary compared to the other fare available in this shopping-mall food court. If my office were near the Park Shops, they would probably become a habit. But if you don't work downtown, they aren't really worth the parking hassle.
A dinnertime visit to the source of those much-beloved pork-and-celery dumplings, Chinese Fast Food, was a disaster. The place looked like a renovation project that had run out of money. A ladder leaned against the wall, as if they were thinking about painting the place someday. The floor was cluttered with stray sofa cushions. The only other patrons were two Chinese-speaking people who were watching a movie on DVD. Realizing that no one understood her, my bored teenage daughter began to supply her own translation voice-over to the stiffly overacted Asian drama.
"I don't care if you're gay, you still have to marry my daughter. I paid a lot of money for this wedding" was one of her choicer dubs.
Worst of all, the eagerly awaited pork-and-celery dumplings had been boiled instead of steamed, so when you bit into a hot dumpling, you got a mouth full of boiling water. I guess when you get them to go, they have more time to drain.
Seeking closure, I returned to Santong Snacks for one more lunch. A friend and I split the beef-soup noodles and beef-soup dumplings. And for good measure, I got a plate of pan-fried dumplings on the side. As usual, I also bought two plastic bags of frozen pork-and-leek ones to take home.
Yup, the dumplings at Santong Snacks are my favorite in Houston. (And what great noodles!) But I have despaired of building a consensus. From now on, when somebody asks me about Houston dumplings, I'm going to say: "They're all good."
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