In the battle for downtown dumpling supremacy, there can be only one. For years, the hotly debated rivalry has stood at a relative impasse between Doozo and Baoz, each with its own adherents, locked in a timeless struggle for dumpling immortality. None had risen to even attempt a challenge. Until now.
Star Chef is tucked into the the food court underneath McKinney Place, at the end of what is fast becoming the underground's closest thing to a Restaurant Row. I'm not sure how long it's been there, but I started noticing it a few weeks ago. It's had a line every time I've passed it, and the majority of its patrons seemed to be Asian. Politically incorrect or not, I generally take it as a good sign when I see a bunch of Vietnamese customers tucking into plastic bowls of phở, even in the tunnels. Maybe especially in the tunnels.
I wasn't there for phở, though. I was there for dumplings. I think it's been said before that, when the name of the joint is a particular dish, that's what you should be eating, and I took that advice. I'm glad I did.
I arrived at the tail end of the lunch rush, to find the place out of pretty much everything. With a smile, the young woman at the register told me they'd have some dumplings out to me in five minutes. I considered going elsewhere, as my lunch minutes are precious, but was swayed by the promise of freshly prepared dumplings.
I ordered half a dozen each of pan fried pork, steamed vegetable, and deep-fried chicken dumplings and brought them back above ground to my cubicle. The following are my notes, as I took them that day:
Wrappers nicely thin but with a pleasant chew and slightly sweet flavor. Probably a bit less tender than expected from steamed dumplings, and these were steamed fresh as I waited. Filling is mostly cabbage, strongly vegetal, slightly sweet flavor, maybe the slightest kick of Chinese mustard. Reminds me of the filling in mass market, ubiquitous Chinese takeout egg rolls. Vastly improved by sauce, whose savory, salty, spicy, ginger/garlic kick plays nicely off of the simple and slightly sweet, slightly bitter filling. Filling also offers an interesting texture, with some cabbage retaining some crunch. Without sauce, these are not good. With, they're passable.
Pan Fried Pork:
Aggressively griddled on bottom. Same thin wrappers, but only folded around filling partially, like a taco. Filling is straightforward, porky but sweet, meat and green onion. Crusty bottom adds textural contrast to soft filling, chewy wrapper, offering a bit of crunchy crispness and enhanced chewiness. Also adds nice, slightly charred flavor, and considerable depth. With the sauce, these might give Baoz and Doozoo a run for their money.
Deep Fried Chicken:
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Look like wontons, basically. Lost their crunch by the time I got them back to the office. Taste like vaguely "Asian" chicken McNuggets, if that's your thing.
I think I can safely rule Star Chef out for total dumpling supremacy, but their pan-fried pork dumplings are quite good. I would go back just for those. For now, though, Star Chef is like the young Richie Ryan of downtown dumplings, just starting on its path to immortality. One day, it may come down to a head-to-head battle. And there can be only one.