Even though I grew up in The Valley, I almost never made it out to the other valley (the San Gabriel, to be exact), and only recently was made aware of the incredible food scene. The SGV is home to some of LA's best Asian food, even being dubbed "America's Asian Food Mecca" by Eater, so my own ignorance regarding a huge portion of LA's dining scene is admittedly pretty embarrassing. But after learning so much about the taco scene during last year's Taco Madness Tour, I realized it was time to once again educate myself...by eating my weight in dumplings. I enlisted my good friend and certified foodie, Max Baldi, as well as our own Social Media Guru Sharlene Park, who willingly took this grueling food journey with me. Watch the video below to see all of our amazing bites (including a GIANT soup dumpling that required straws and sucking the juice out of it), our various shenanigans, and which places we chose for our top 5!
THE CONTENDERS :
For our ultimate dumpling tour, we had to narrow down the probably hundreds of choices to something we could actually do in one day, which we figured was about 5 spots. We chose heavyweight dumpling favorite and LA-staple, Din Tai Fung, as well as the lesser known Emperor Noodles (now Q38 Noodle House), Mama Lu's, Juicy Dumpling, and the ubiquitous Chengdu Taste.
THE COMPETITION :
We made an effort to stick to similar types of dumplings to make the rankings and comparisons as streamlined as possible. This meant mostly pork soup dumplings, pork & crab, or fried pork dumplings.
1. Din Tai Fung
One of LA's original spots for Xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), Din Tai Fung originated in Taiwan and has expanded to Australia, The Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and more. It's easily one of the most internationally renowned restaurants for dumplings, and their original U.S. outlet resides in Arcardia (lucky us). They've since expanded to multiple locations in the SGV, as well as glossy new digs at The Americana in Glendale. So it was really no wonder that Din Tai Fung was first on our list...but it may have been a bit unfair to the rest of our contenders (or was it?) to start off the day on such a high note. Both the pork and pork & crab dumplings were very delicate but bursting with flavor, balancing out the meaty insides with a hot, rich broth encompassed by light little pillows of dough. The pork was definitely rich, but for the seafood mixture, the brine of the crab cut through it nicely, creating a really well-balanced bite. Pretty hard to beat, to be honest.
2. Emperor Noodles/Q38 Noodle House
Q38 Noodle House, formerly known as Emperor Noodles, is perhaps lesser known, but still a celebrated favorite of the legendary J.Gold. Though we still obviously ordered some pork xiao long bao, we also had to get the highly recommended Sheng jian bao-- a pan fried pork dumpling with sesame seeds. They were quite doughy, and the friend bottoms were definitely a hit. But we all found that the ratio of dough to filling was just a bit off, as some more filling could've really knocked it out of the park. Their renderings of the pork soup dumplings were solid, but maybe a bit less delicate and more hardy than those of Din Tai Fung. With flavors that mimicked those of a traditional pork gyoza and a structure that fell apart a bit too easily, these dumplings just didn't really stand up to the first ones we had.
3. Mama Lu's
We could immediately tell that Mama Lu's was a neighborhood staple by the amount of people dining there around 4 in the afternoon. Aside from just being a "dumpling house," Mama Lu serves an array of traditional Chinese food that all looked really good. But alas, we had to remain focused, and so we ordered the pork, shrimp, and chive dumplings (which appeared in more traditional gyoza form) and the pan fried pork dumplings. The pork, shrimp, and chive was definitely a solid offering: tender, very chivey, and maybe just a bit too runny. Like those at Q38, their Pan Fried Pork boasted a very fluffy dough, and similarly lacked enough filling, while the filling they did have lacked the flavorful taste of those from Q38.
4. Juicy Dumpling
Other than the expectation that the dumplings would hopefully be juicy, as promised, I really had absolutely zero preconceived notions about this empty restaurant in a strip mall. And in my ignorance, I didn't realize until we entered that this was indeed the home of the giant soup dumpling I've seen in my Instagram feed. Of course, we had to get it, and let me tell you...it did not disappoint. As promised, it was incredibly juicy, so much so that we were given straws to poke into the firm layer of dough to suck out the hot, flavorful, meaty broth inside. Once we poked around a bit, we used spoons to open it up and scoop out the meat, as well as some dough. Much more than a PR stunt, it was a delicious dish to share. We also ordered the pork and crab xiao long bao, which were delicate, also very juicy, and flavorful.
5. Chengdu Taste
With lines that used to extend around the block (and still do in some cases), Chengdu Taste now has multiple locations to give people all over the SGV their fix of its beloved Sichuan cuisine. We somehow managed to not face any wait (apparently unheard of) when we arrived, and ordered only a few scant dishes because we were honestly too full at this point to go after the whole menu (as much as I wanted to). In terms of dumplings, our options were pretty much limited to the infamous Numb Taste Wontons, which in case the name doesn't give it away to you, are very very spicy. They come looking like innocuous tender wontons sitting on top of a mysterious Szechuan peppercorn sauce, and were overall tender and tasty. But as soon as you mix them in with the sauce, the peppercorn is so spicy it literally numbs your mouth, which is pretty much when I tapped out. Excellent for spice lovers, but a bit too much for my delicate constitution.
THE RESULTS :
Despite some ups-and-downs of the day, the competition was pretty stiff. Still, my ranking of favorites is as follows:
WINNER: Din Tai Fung -- It was our first of the day, and thus the standard to which we compared everything else. At the end of the day, it remained my favorite, and I felt that almost nothing else we had compared.
Runner Up: Juicy Dumplings -- I was definitely surprised, but to me, this came in second. Not just because the Giant Soup Dumpling was so fun, but the intense flavors, delicate dough, and meatiness of their offerings were really quite impressive.
3. Q38 Noodles : Despite a few technical grievances, their dumplings were solid and I would for sure go back and have them again.
4. Mama Lu's : The pork, shrimp, and chive dumplings were just too chivey for my taste, while the pan fried pork were a bit bland. Overall, a bit of a letdown as Mama Lu's seems like a surefire favorite amongst SGV locals and visitors alike.
5. Chengdu Taste : I'll probably get crucified in foodie circles for ranking Chengdu Taste last, but alas, those are the risks I take for this job. Simply put, the Numb Taste Wontons were unsurprisingly just too spicy for me. If you love spice, this could easily rank first or second. I'm sure the rest of the food is amazing, but as dumplings go, I just couldn't eat these.
Music by : soundcloud.com/jeff-kaale
Instagram : www.instagram.com/jeffkaale/