Ah, dumplings — could there be any more universal, quintessential comfort food? From Polish pierogies to Italian ravioli, from Korean mandu to Nepalese momos, so many cultures have some variation on the filling-inside-dough theme that there must be something innately maybe even biologically appealing to us about dumplings.
Dumplings can be just as variable in origin as they are in flashiness and opulence. At Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese-turned-international xiao long bao chain, each soup dumpling is made of paper-thin skin, carefully pleated into 18 folds — and often stuffed with luxurious fillings like truffles and Kurobuta pork. At dim sum restaurants like Dragon Beaux in San Francisco, a dish called Five Guys comes with five different xiao long bao, each placed on its own ceramic spoon and dyed a different color of the rainbow with ingredients like squid ink, turmeric, or beets, and stuffed with ingredients like crab roe. Accompanying the dumplings are taro buns decorated with a hypnotizing purple swirl resembling Poliwag's belly. Meanwhile, over at Fusion Delight in San Leandro, dumplings are served alongside steamed custard buns with pink ears and snouts to make them look like pigs, and durian puffs that are shaped into swans.
Colorful, intricately folded dumplings with extravagant fillings might rack up Instagram likes, but sometimes the most comfort-filled dumplings are the ones that you'd find ordinary people making at home. Think back to whatever kind of dumpling your elders churned out by the dozen at the kitchen table — for me, it's my grandmother folding tray after tray of won ton, stuffed with succulent ground pork, bouncy shrimp, and crunchy water chestnuts.
Those are the same spirit of dumplings you'll find at New Dumpling, a small, cheerful, and bustling family-run restaurant that opened on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito in April. In just a few months, the restaurant has already enjoyed popularity, and on weekends, you might have to wait for a table. The short but sweet menu is only a page long, and the restaurant only serves one type of dumpling: jiaozi.
Jiaozi are Chinese dumplings made with round wheat wrappers, stuffed with a filling of your choice, and either pleated or simply folded. They can be steamed, pan-fried, or as is the case here, boiled. There's nothing flashy about the very reasonably priced jiaozi at New Dumpling — no intricate pleats, no colorful vegetable-dyed wrappers. No matter which variety of jiaozi you choose here, they'll all look the same from the outside.
But New Dumpling offers a variety of fillings that, as far as I know, is unparalleled in the area. In the open kitchen, you can see the cooks making each batch of 12 or so dumplings to order, scooping fillings from different bowls and folding them into the fresh wrappers, then tossing them into the pot for boiling. Some combinations are classic, like the version stuffed with green chives, shrimp, and pork. The pork provided richness, while the shrimp provided natural sweetness, cut by the slight heat of the chives. It was a well-balanced dumpling with familiar, comforting flavors. Use the white vinegar, soy sauce, and chili garlic provided at the table to mix your own dipping sauce according to your tastes. If you're looking for a more unusual variation stuffed with pork, try the version with pork and green peppers. This one was bursting with juice and had just a hint of heat from the green peppers, with a cravable, spicy-savory flavor.
Some options tend to veer a little sweet. The beef and carrot dumpling was made with finely ground beef and bits of minced carrot, which provided earthy flavor that reminded me of sweet potato. The flavor profile would be excellent in the colder months, though I found the texture a little too soft. But one of my favorites was the chicken and corn dumpling, made with crunchy, juicy corn kernels that added fun texture and natural sweetness to the dumpling. Think a comforting egg and corn soup, but in dumpling form.
The shrimp, zucchini, and egg dumpling, which combined springy shrimp with crunchy, juicy zucchini and fluffy, rich eggs, was a textural delight. The flavors were mild, yet nuanced. Even better was the tomato and egg dumpling. It's the only vegetarian dumpling on the menu, but it was also one of the best dumplings I tried. The eggs were even more cloud-like and airy than the shrimp and zucchini version, while bits of diced fresh tomato added a hint of acidity. Neither of these flavors will knock your socks off in terms of distinctive flavor, but they have that essence of fresh, homemade comfort food.
While it's tempting to order a meal consisting entirely of dumplings — as I did on my first visit out of sheer excitement — I think that ordering a variety of items makes for a more balanced, enjoyable dining experience. The green onion pancake, which had a just-right amount of greasiness, was a solid starter. Its crisp, flaky surfaces provided a textural contrast to the soft dumpling skins. The beef noodle soup came with a dark, opaque, and heavily spiced broth that had a hint of floral, tingling spice. The thick wheat noodles were nice and al dente, while the beef was served with tendon attached for optimum texture. It's a good dish for sharing, but maybe a little too oily to eat an entire bowl on your own.
Be sure to get at least one of the cold side dishes, which serve as the ideal palate cleansers between dumplings. My favorite was the pig ear salad, which was cut into extra-thin, crispy slices and served with shredded carrots, a handful of cilantro on top, and a hint of numbing spice. For balance, I'd also get the seaweed salad, which was made with strips of kombu seaweed and had a vinegary, refreshing flavor. Because this is comfort food, after all — and sometimes you need a reminder to eat your veggies.