On the Menu: The Dumpling King

I'm not one of those people who's likely to wander into a restaurant without having heard about it first. Call me picky, but if I'm going somewhere new, I like to know ahead of time what's good and what to order. "Where do you like to eat," I'll ask someone I just met, or someone who professes to love food. It's a great way to find hidden gems that I would never find on my own, and this past week, that's exactly what happened.

"There's this dumpling house next to the T-Mobile store and Arirang Korean Restaurant," the owner of Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro, Ron Chen, told me. "I couldn't tell you what it's called, but my wife and I go there almost every week. Get the dumpling and the black bean noodle."

Chen used to own the popular Sinh Sinh Restaurant in Chinatown and travels regularly to Asia/Southeast Asia to get ideas for Rattan's menu. I knew I'd like his recommendation, so within the week, I found myself at the no-name dumpling house (9715 Bellaire Blvd, Ste B).

For signage, there's just three Chinese characters, and when you walk into the restaurant, it's more the same. In fact, the entire menu on the wall was in Chinese except for a couple of English words I could make out: "Pork chop."

A Chinese lady stood behind the counter, and when I asked her if she spoke English, she nodded hesitatingly. "What's good to eat here?" I asked her. "Dumplings," she responded, giving me a strange look, as if I had walked into the wrong place.

"Do you have an English menu?" I asked her, to which she handed me a plain piece of white paper with a simple one page menu in Chinese, Korean and English. There were five sections: Buns, Boiled Dumplings, Pan-Fried Dumplings, Steamed Dumplings and Noodles. I asked her which pan-fried dumplings to get, and she pointed me to the pan-fried pork and vegetable dumplings. I also ordered the black bean soy noodle.

The restaurant was clean but ambience was muted, which is so unlike the boisterous Cantonese establishments I'm used to, where everyone speaks in what seems like higher decibels. The primarily Chinese patrons were eating quietly and speaking in hushed tones, while the buzzing hum of a large cooler filled the air.

Within minutes, a large square plate of 10 beautiful pan-fried dumplings had been delivered to my table. It sounds corny, but these were just as beautiful on the outside as they were on the inside. The bottom layer of each dumpling was crisped to golden brown, while the rest of the thin, almost-translucent dumpling wrapper gave way to a moist and juicy well-packed innard of pork and vegetable.

They were by far the best dumplings I've had in the city, and I can now understand why one commenter, Joe, scoffed at the picture of the San Dong dumplings I wrote about in late May.

The black bean noodle came next, and all I saw initially was a thick layer of some of the darkest black sauce I'd ever seen. Underneath was a bed of fat white udon-like noodles, and when you mixed the noodles, the viscous, somewhat gelatinous black bean sauce with minced pork gave the noodles a slick coating, perfect for slurping the noodles up, one by one (I didn't do this, of course). On the menu, it indicates that this is a Korean-style noodle called Ja Jang Myun, and although the initial presentation was a bit off-putting, the black bean sauce was not nearly as strong as I'd imagined it would be. It reminded me a lot of the Taiwanese noodle dish I had last week, and I quite enjoyed this dish, too.

So, would I go back to this place? Absolutely. Could I tell you what it's called? Um, not in English. I asked the lady behind the counter if the restaurant had an English name, but she shook her head in the negative and proceed to write the three chinese characters for me to read.

"How long have you been open?" I asked her.

"Three," she mumbled.

"Three months?" I asked.

"Three years," she replied.

Wow. Three years, no English name, three Chinese characters for signage. I could say that they did it purposefully so that non-Chinese would not come to their restaurant, but that's simply not the case (there was one Caucasian male in the restaurant when I was there). These are just hard-working Chinese people who know very little English and opened up a restaurant doing what they know best: dumplings.

So if you want super-authentic food and you don't mind a bit of a language barrier, go to this three-character Chinese dumpling house. I've since found out that the three characters phonetically sound something like "Joh tzi wong," and that they mean "Dumpling King."

No wonder the lady looked at me funny when I asked her what to order.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham