Pan-Fried Dumplings at San Dong Noodle House

Much like our American hamburger, pan-fried dumplings are simple fast food in China. Easy to find, easy to make, cheap to eat, filling and tasty. Here in Houston, you can get pan-fried dumplings at any number of restaurants, but for no-frills, down-home-honest-to-goodness-cheap ones, there is no better place than San Dong Noodle House. Whenever I get a craving for dumplings, I head there.

It's been several years since I first tried San Dong, and little has changed since I first entered its doors, except for the fact that the Chinese woman who stands at the counter seems happier now. She greets me with a smile and refers to me as "Lady," and her movements don't seem as labored and begrudging as they did in the past.

Maybe it's because people are actually tipping her these days. Nowadays, a large jar labeled "tips" sits conspicuously on the counter with some money in it. But since the restaurant is basically self-serve - you order at the counter, then get your own utensils, napkins, water, etc., before sitting down and waiting for your food to arrive - people traditionally don't tip. In fact, on one of my previous visits, when I tried to leave a tip at the table, a Chinese woman sitting across from me looked at me disapprovingly and insisted, "You really don't have to leave a tip."

Everything on the menu runs in the $5 range, including my favorite - the pan-fried pork and cabbage dumplings.

Many restaurants only serve eight per portion, but San Dong gives you a whopping 12 dumplings for $5.25. Long and slim, pan-fried until lightly golden on the bottom, the dumplings are very good every time. It's the dumpling wrapper that makes the dumpling, and here, it's not too thick or thin, and obviously freshly made. The filling is ample and well-seasoned without being overly salty.

They don't serve the dumplings with a sauce, but you can make your own with the condiments at the table. I mix some soy sauce, hot chili oil, and rice vinegar to get a slightly tangy dipping sauce.

There are other notable items on the menu, like the fried pork chop rice plate, and the beef brisket noodle soup. They also have a to-go area of steamed pork-filled bao (buns). Not surprisingly, this is one of those cash-only places, but the great thing about San Dong is that a $10 bill is enough to get you a solid meal with some change left over.

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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