A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Feb. 5.

Boiled and fried pork and chive

Lunch -

Dumpling House - 118 Eldridge St., Chinatown
Fried pork and chive dumplings, boiled pork and chive dumplings

One of my favorite aspects of Charlottesville, Virginia, where I went to college, was the dumpling stand off of the Downtown Mall. It was called Marco and Luca, and was no more than one man frying up dumplings, making soups, and serving up pork buns, and a girl, usually his daughter, collecting money and handing out change. $1.50 bought six wonderful pork dumplings, and my friends and I would often go downtown just to get some. Having these dumplings of course would make me wax nostalgic about my many adventures, eating and otherwise, in Chinatown and New York.

Back in New York, I’d been frequenting Dumpling Man (see Jan. 6), but their dumplings were almost too artisanal and neat for what I wanted today. So I walked down about twenty-five minutes to go to Dumpling House, a small storefront that’s practically gained legendary status for their five dumplings for one dollar deal. Crowded, unadorned and cramped, with six chefs-cum-waiters hustling behind one counter, Dumpling House typifies everything I love about Chinatown. It’s as far from fancy as you can get, but there’s as much appreciation for the food and the meal as any top restaurant.

The most popular feature is the namesake dumplings, which come in three varieties. You can get five fried pork and chive dumplings, ten boiled pork and chive dumplings, or ten boiled pork and Chinese vegetables. I went with the first two, knowing it’d be a challenge to finish all of it. Ordering proved to be the bigger challenge though, as I hit upon a peak time and was thus subjected to Chinese men from either side pushing dollars in front of me, shouting out orders, as everyone fought to be next on line. What I learned: be aggressive and get over to the left. Barring that, just wait for the occasional lulls and jump in.

In the time I waited for my dumplings to finish preparing, I watched a chef making sesame pancakes. Starting with one giant pancake, he spread a pizza-sized piece of dough into a boiling pan. The dough had scallions sprinkled into its base and was soon topped with handful of sesame seeds. He flipped the massive circle over a few times, covered it up to steam, and finally decided it was ready. He then sliced up the pancake into triangles just smaller than pizza slices. They looked and smelled delicious (despite my dislike of scallions). I made a note to order one next time.

Just as my dumplings came, the girl sitting next to me (there are about five seats at the back) mentioned how this was her friend’s favorite place in New York City. Every time she visited New York, they had to come to Dumpling House. I don’t know about that, but the dumplings are indeed very good. Different from Dumpling Man in the ways you’d expect (simpler, less ingredients, more quickly produced) but satisfying in their own capacity, they made for a great and very filling meal. However, my own personal preference leaned heavily toward the fried over the boiled, which were soggy and began to stick together with the other dumplings in the plate. The fried had a nice crunch on the bottom that juxtaposed well with the doughy tops. Next time, I would go for two orders of the fried.

As I finished and set back into the bustle of Chinatown, I couldn’t help thinking how I preferred Marco and Luca’s dumplings. The humor of this situation struck me. Here I was at some unknown person’s favorite spot in New York City, contemplating the food in Virginia. When I’d been in Virginia, I’d been busy contemplating the food in Chinatown. And now hours later, with no food in sight, I’m of course picturing the pancake. 7/10


- Papaya salad with shrimp, squid and mussels; saute drunken noodles with chicken, chili leaves and basil; grass jelly drink; coconut rice; kanom chan (green coconut tapioca dessert)

I met up with my friend Mike at Sripraphai for another round at this amazing Thai restaurant (see Jan. 8). Having really enjoyed my samples of Vince’s dishes last time, I decided to try the full servings for myself. As I did last time, I requested my dishes to be prepared Thai spicy and readied myself for the heat.

I wasn’t ready. The papaya salad, which I made fun of Vince for finding too spicy, was a firebomb. The heat seemed minimal at first bite and I thought I might have been underestimated. Still, the seafood and the papaya went so well together that I didn’t mind the absence of kick. Halfway through my dish though, with the intensity building and building, the match was suddenly lit. My tongue burned and my eyes watered. I downed my glass of water and melted the ice cubes in my mouth. A waiter refilled my glass and I finished it again, like a man lost in the desert. After finally cooling down, I braved some more of the mussels and shrimp, alternating between the plate and my glass. The salad was very good and if my mouth hadn’t gone numb, I would have loved to finish it. Next time I’ll know to order that one dish medium spicy.

The drunken noodles were exactly as great as I remembered them. After only a few bites, Mike, who’d ordered the same entree, was ready to proclaim this the best Thai food he’d ever had. I loved the interplay of flavors and herbs, the greasy but not overly greasy texture of the wide noodles, and the accompanying hot dipping sauce. I found myself relying on the sauce at first because I thought the dish could stand to be hotter. As amazing as the flavors were, none were all that spicy. “Are you kidding?” Mike asked, getting his glass refilled. “It’s very hot.” That was when we both realized that the salad had neutralized my capacity for detecting heat.

Dessert again proved to be the decrescendo, with novelty presiding over quality. I opted for five radioactively lime green cubes of coconut and tapioca from the racks of oddities and ends. Mike wanted no part of it so one by one, I bravely devoured the alien dessert. Unsurprisingly, it tasted like coconut and had a slippery texture. It was another unique ending.

The one feature that was decidedly worse this visit around was the service. Instead of coming at seven, this time, Mike and I had to come at eight-thirty, hitting upon the restaurant’s peak business. The wait was about thirty-five minutes to be seated, which was fine because I knew about the wait and had prepared for it. However, once we were in our seats, it took time for menus to materialize. It took a long time for someone to take our orders and even longer for them to arrive. The waitresses were nice but hard to track down as they ran around, trying to accommodate the constant demands of a packed house. This is in contrast to the more relaxed atmosphere we found at seven o’clock, where we had one very able waiter taking care of us.

Next time, I will definitely aim to avoid the crush of post-eight o’clock Sripraphai dining and the inferno otherwise known as the Thai-spicy papaya salad. Other than that, I only continue to be excited and intrigued by so much of the menu I’ve still left unexplored. 7/10


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