Humans have been wrapping cooked meat in dough since we learned to grind grain on stone. Every culture across the board has a variation of a glutenous morsel stuffed with whatever ingredients are within arms reach. Wild game, forested mushrooms, leftover stews. Boiled, steamed, fried, or cooked over an open flame. Bite-size pockets of nourishment. Quick, efficient, and delicious.
Steamed pork bao, Polish pierogi, Nepali momos, Italian ravioli, Japanese gyoza, German kartoffelknoedel, Jewish kerplach, Korean mandu, Thai shiumai. The list goes on and on.
Arguably the most delicious, in my opinion, are xiaolongbao, the Chinese soup dumpling. A food item so euphoric, I dream about floating through a sky not filled with clouds, but bouncy, soupy pouches of perfection. But I’ll put just about anything steamed or fried up in dough into my face. Pause. Storytime.
Some say that eighteen hundred years ago, a Chinese medicine man named Zhang Zhongjing was disturbed one winter by an epidemic of frostbite to the ears of his fellow villagers. In an effort to fight the rash of icy ears, he mixed hot mutton meat, spicy chilies, and herbs together, and wrapped them in dough. Forming them into little ear-shaped bites of warmth, he boiled them up in a medicinal stock and gave them to his patients.
Whether or not this is true, or whether or not it saved the villagers from frostbitten ears is up for debate, but there is no argument that the Chinese dumpling has become one of the greatest bites of food around the globe.
Our relationship with dumplings in modern times is, well, difficult. If you stuff mac and cheese in a wonton wrapper and steam it, is it a dumpling? Is lobster in a thin dough poached in brown butter still a dumpling? Or is it a ravioli? Cheeseburger dumpling? If you put pepperoni and cheese in a wonton wrapper and cook it, is it a dumpling? Or is it a good old-fashioned pizza roll? Wait. Is a pizza roll a dumpling? See what I’m saying? It gets difficult.
New Orleans isn’t a town known for Chinese food. Dumpling lovers in the know have held secret the few places that even attempt a decent xiaolongbao. This is a shame. It’s time to spread the love. Expand the dumpling club. I set out over the last few weeks in search of some of the best dumplings that New Orleans has to offer. For the sake of consistency, I stuck to steamed or pan-fried dumplings and soup dumplings. I excluded those of the dim sum variety, gyoza, and shumai. We can save the best in show of those another time. I did include a few joints that have taken some delicious liberties with the dumpling to great result, for variety sake. Your taste buds will thank me.
China Rose was my introduction to the New Orleans soup dumpling. A chef friend told me about it, and it felt like Fight Club.
The first rule of dumpling club is to not talk about dumpling club. At that point, if you would have told me they actually existed here, I would have scoffed. I would have called it a conspiracy theory. A myth. Like the elusive Bigfoot, the Rougarou, or the Loch Ness monster.
But then, like the hatch of a UFO before me, a metal steamer opened up and the vapor cleared to reveal the impossible.
Soup dumplings. In Metairie. Who would have thunk it? These bad boys are dense and chewy. They are obviously made fresh to order, so if you are in a hurry, I’d skip em. Doused up with chili oil and sliced ginger, I felt like fighting Brad Pitt in a basement they were so good.
I should note that they are so secret you have to ask for the secret menu. And I received an approving grin from my waitress when I asked for them. Welcome to the club.
Royal China looks out of place. You roll up to the big red barn of a building just off Veterans and it looks like it would be more at home in a cane field alongside the Atchafalaya River somewhere.
But the moment you walk inside you are immersed in the quintessential Chinese restaurant experience.
Greeted by the smells of sweet things and sour things and fried things. As well as a large fish tank filled with bulbous goldfish with googly eyes. Paper lanterns hang from the low ceilings. Little jars of scorching hot mustard and chili oil sit squarely in the middle of each table.
Those who have visited know that the owner and Hong Kong native, Miss Shirley Lee, rules the dining room with a sweet, but Iron fist. She buzzes about in dizzying circles, taking orders, delivering food, and chitchatting with the regulars. She is a wonder of the service world and surely (no pun intended) a national treasure.
The soup dumplings, or “dragon dumplings” as they call them, are a bit smaller than others I’ve had in town. But they were hot and filled with plenty of broth, most of which went down the front of my shirt biting into the first one.
Before you scold me, I’m fully schooled in the methodology of HOW to eat a soup dumpling, but sometimes my technique fails when I’m hungry.
These dumplings had the classic “droop” of a bao with lots of soup, and they had a really heavy hit of ginger mixed into the filling that was lovely. They were served with a sauce the color of a stop sign, which I approached with caution. Surprisingly, it is a lovely mix of Chinese vinegars and ginger perfect for dipping.
Ming Garden is a classic anomaly. By definition, that means they deviate from the norm, or the expected. Let’s be honest, it looks a little like the Department of Motor Vehicles when you walk in. Bare counter. A few pictures on the wall to instruct your culinary decision. Just a few spots to wait for your order. A small alter burning incense by the hallway to the bathrooms. But trust me on this one.
The steamed dumplings here are, in my dumpling loving opinion, the best in the city. The dough surrounding the little meatballs of porky, ginger-spiked heaven is thick and toothsome. These dumplings put up a fight. They are dense and fatty. They are a meal, not an appetizer. Eight of these bad boys will set you back just five bucks. For that price I’d suggest you get two orders and share the love with a friend. Or just stuff them all in your face and call it a day.
Dian Xin opened its doors to the kind of fanfare and excitement most restaurants only dream of. Within just a few days the people of New Orleans rushed this small dim sum joint with such a ferocious hunger for soup dumplings that the family-run joint was forced to close for a week and reassess their system. The owners tooled their hours and workflow and reopened to serve what is arguably the best Chinese food currently in New Orleans.
The crabmeat and crawfish Soup dumplings are as good, if not better than any I’ve had in New York or Los Angeles. Stuffed with lump crabmeat and crawfish, these Bao are perfectly executed. The dough has just the right thickness, and rich soup bursts into your mouth when you nip into one. Unlike some I’ve had that were clunky, too big, and difficult to eat, these are one-bite wonders that explode like a cherry tomato when bitten down on. (NOTE — let them cool off a bit first though, ya dummy).
I also had to dive straight into the Hot and Sour dumpling soup. The intense hit of Szechuan peppercorns made my mouth come alive. The wontons are huge, stuffed with meaty pork and the telltale sourness of pickled mustard tuber. The broth is intensely rich and a dark, oily crimson color. I may have been overcome with emotion, but it is possibly the best spicy broth in New Orleans.
Lucky for us, the owners are very passionate about bringing authentic Chinese street food to the city, and it shows. This is a restaurant you will want to return to over and over to explore the menu.
Bao and Noodle
Long before lines were forming down the street for Chinese grub at Dian Xin, chef Doug Crowell took a serious leap of faith by opening a little dumpling and noodle joint, appropriately named Bao and Noodle, in the Marigny.
It was only 2014, but it seems like the dark ages. A time where Chinese food in New Orleans felt like a vast wasteland of Americanized take out joints frequented by the lovers of gloopy, sweet, bastardized versions of Asian fare. People didn’t KNOW we needed a hero like Chef Doug to step up and offer classic and authentic noodle dishes heavy on Northern Chinese flavors. Like the Sichuan peppercorn and cumin braised lamb with giant hand ripped noodles. Spicy, nutty dan dan Noodles. Fiery and mouth-numbing mapo tofu. And a rotating special board of fresh, handmade dumplings. Seriously, this dude is up to his elbows making little dough wrappers and noodles from scratch. Every day.
The bao here are steamed up pillow soft and a quick jump in the frying pan gives them a great toasty crunch on the bottom. Fatty and juicy pork hides inside. The meat is perfectly seasoned and specked with green onions. Pro tip: Make sure to utilize the black vinegar and chili oil here for maximum flavor. It takes these bao from yum to wow.
Jung’s Golden Dragon II
Jung’s Golden Dragon a restaurant of Chinese take out masters. On the rare occasion that I actually eat in the restaurant, I’m normally one of the only, if not the only person in there. But that is miles from saying they aren’t busy, and light years away from saying they aren’t good. Kids these days will never remember a time you had to call a restaurant, give them an order, hope they understood you correctly, and pray it actually showed up. I remember it. It was just a couple of years ago, believe it or not.
Nowadays when I visit Jungs, it is a solid stream of Uber drivers, Waitr drivers, GrubHub drivers, in and out and in and out. The phone never stops ringing. Takeout boxes feeding families with parents too exhausted to cook. Feeding dudes on couches with the munchies. Feeding Netflix’s and chills. Jungs calls their soup dumplings “soupy buns,” which may not be the most flattering name, but don’t judge a book by its cover. They told me these dumplings are handmade fresh to order (which means they take a while to make, O’ impatient ones) and they are really good. I didn’t find them to be as “soupy” as they should be, but they totally hit the spot.
Jungs also gets the award for the strangest pan-fried dumplings in New Orleans. They are served with a crisp, paper-thin lattice joining them together. A technique called “skirting”, where a soupy slurry of rice flour is added right before the dumplings finish frying. It Kinda looks like a big dumpling crepe, and these meaty, doughy pockets are super juicy and explode with flavor when you bite them. I actually enjoy them much more than the “soupy buns.”
A note on takeout though. These dumplings are much better eaten fresh from the steamer or the pan. During travel from the restaurant to your domicile via your favorite delivery service they get mushy and lose some of their structural integrity. Do what ya wanna, but If you complain to me that they were cold and lost their crunchy lattice after having them driven (slowly) to your house by an Uber duder, that’s on you.
While LUVI’S chef’s choice tasting menu may be the star of this beautiful little spot on Tchoupitoulas Street, I’d surely be scolded for leaving out mama’s dumplings. No surprise, chef Hao Gong’s dumplings get their name from his mother’s secret recipe. These one bite wonders are stuffed with crabmeat, pork, and crunchy water chestnuts. They are swimming in a light, but umami-heavy broth. This dish is delicate and like most things on the menu at LUVI, a work of culinary art. This is the definition of date night fare, but the welcoming bar is great for a lone dumpling lover to belly up and chow down.
Everyone knows that Kin has the most creative soup game in town, but it also offers a rotating repertoire of dumpling specials that are consistently clever and always delicious.
The specials when I scooted through on one particular day were real head-scratchers. And I mean that in the best way possible. There’s nothing I love more at a dining establishment than to be surprised by creative uses of flavors or fun plays on dishes we are all comfortable with. And the dumplings I ate at Kin more than exceeded that.
Round one. Creamy chicken pot pie filling stuffed into a wonton wrapper and deep fried until golden brown. Served with, much to the delight of my inner junk food connoisseur, bright orange nacho cheese. Topped with fresh diced tomatoes, green onions, and a heavy sprinkle of smokey chili powder. These bad boys were as delicious as they were fun to eat.
Round Two. Steamed “mac and cheese” dumplings arrived looking like a little cheesy pyramid of Giza. These folded pockets were filled with a slightly spicy béchamel sauce. I was blown away at first bite. It was equally something very familiar and totally different at the same time. Like mac and cheese turned inside out.
I’m sure I giggled out loud I was so tickled by it. If it’s possible to be tickled by a dumpling. It’s hard to skip the ramen at Kin, but if you step out side of the bowl and order up the dumpling specials, you won’t be disappointed. This made for a fun little lunch, and both orders only ran me a total of $11, it’s a real deal.
This new hot spot on Magazine Street is mostly focused on souped-up, modern-day takes on junk food. Like burgers topped with foie gras butter, fried appetizers that are the love child of shrimp toasts and onion rings, and house-made Twinkies.
But on a recent trip to check them out I couldn’t help but taste the crawfish etouffee dumplings. These slippery little dudes were stuffed with spicy mudbugs and exploding with flavor. A thick, ginger-spiked roux is poured over them tableside, a roux so good I had no shame in lifting the bowl to my lips and slurping down its contents. They were topped with jet black squid ink chips, cilantro, and a hit of fermented pepper.
Get these bad boys while they are hot, with an ever-changing menu, I’m sure they are seasonal. Ultimately these dumplings were just too good to leave off this list.
Now go on and binge watch “Seinfeld” reruns and chow down with your friends, of both the human and furry variety. Thank me later.