My shame was very great indeed. Din Tai Fung, the world famous emporium of soup dumplings, had opened up at the Americana Mall literally ten minutes from where we live in Atwater Village. I’d seen the sign go up when I was Christmas shopping, and–a few weeks later–I saw life through the windows. But any time I’d plead, “Soup dumplings? Din Tai Fung?” to Craig, there’d be some reason we couldn’t go. I was getting restless. I had to try it. So, right before Sundance, when Craig was still picking out his premiere outfit, I agreed to help him find a pair of shoes at the Americana if he’d agree to eat lunch with me at Din Tai Fung. A deal was struck. Soup dumplings would be mine.
Last year, an article came out that I immediately bookmarked. It was on AsiaSociety.com and it was written by a man named David Chan who ate at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants in America to determine the best. His list of the 10 Best was notable because all of the restaurants were in California, mostly Los Angeles. As he explained, “More wealthy/professional Chinese settle in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, and they demand, and can afford, a higher quality of Chinese food.” #2 on his list was a place called Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant and last week, I made plans to lunch there with my fellow food bloggers (and former Clean Plate Club guests) Ganda Suthivarakom and Zach Brooks.
In the latest issue of Lucky Peach, Jonathan Gold talks about a Taiwanese restaurant that he really didn’t like at first. “I went and I really hated it…[But] I could tell that it wasn’t a bad restaurant. People were really dressed up and obviously they were there on purpose.” Gold ended up going back 17 times. “I was back there so often–this place that I detested–that one of the waitresses tried to set me up with her daughter.”
17 times. That little nugget stayed with me after I read it: I go to a restaurant, eat there, take pictures, and write about it. I rarely go back. So last week, I decided to Goldify myself: I made the pilgrimage to the San Gabriel valley, home of some of the nation’s most authentic Chinese food, to eat at Tasty Noodle House. And the next day I went back to eat there again.
Brothers and sisters, I have seen the light! All these years, these years of reading Calvin Trillin (the poet laureate of dumplings) and fake nodding as my Manhattanite friends (ones who grew up here) debated dumpling dives, I faked an interest that didn’t really exist. You see, I didn’t really get the big deal. What’s so great about dumplings? Aren’t they just glorified ravioli, greasy gut-bombs that you dip in soy sauce and that make you feel gross and un-full and desperate for a salad? This, of course, is sacrilege in the food world but my confession here is a precursor for an absolute conversion that came about because of a little web show called Working Class Foodies.
My mom tells the story of her Uncle Manny who stunned her, as a young girl, out at Chinese restaurant when he told the waitress: “Bring whatever’s good” without even glancing at the menu.
I remember hearing that story as a kid and thinking nothing could be more lavish than shirking a menu and all the required calculations one must make in order not to break the bank. And then, years later, as I entered the food world I started dining with food writers and food professionals and guess what? They’d ask the waiter “what’s good?” and do as my Uncle Manny did–order not what was economically sound and reasonable, but whatever it was that the restaurant was proudest to proffer.
The Uncle Manny bug bit me last week when I stumbled back into Rickshaw, a former favorite dumpling place near my old apartment on 23rd Street and 6th Ave. I stared at the menu and all its options–6 dumpling options, essentially–and instead of choosing one I asked the cashier if I could have one of each.
“Sure,” she said. “You can do individual orders of each: they each come in their own sauce.”
“In their own sauce?” I asked. “Like floating in sauce?”
“No,” she said. “Like there’s a little thing of sauce and the dumpling’s in the sauce.”
That sounded very strange but I wasn’t going to argue. I also ordered my favorite Rickshaw beverage, the Meyer lemonade and eagerly awaited the arrival of my dumplings.
I wish I could say that this dumpling tasting was a success, but it really wasn’t. When the dumplings came they were, as the cashier said, dunked into little tubs of sauce. Many of the sauces were thick mayonnaisey sauces and so the dumplings, by the time I got to them, were saturated with fat and goo and also rather mealy. Also, for the amount of money it all cost–over $10–it would’ve been smarter just to choose one dumpling and pair it with a salad or soup, the way it’s normally done at Rickshaw.
No one dumpling stood out, but essentially the dumplings themselves were very decent: as decent as anything wrapped in dough and fried in oil can be. I just wish they weren’t soaked in sauce. And that I’d gotten a salad to negate how unhealthy it all was.
Alas, there are times to be an Uncle Manny and times not to be an Uncle Manny. This was one of those times not to be an Uncle Manny.