I hate to be a sourpuss, but most dumpling shops in the city leave me feeling underwhelmed.
I do love the idea of them—they are as egalitarian as you can get, upholding the lofty ideal that for one dollar, anyone can have a meal that's good and filling. But something always goes wrong: the pork is not fatty enough; the pork is too fatty; the pork is too gristly; the dough is too thick or gummy; the dough is too thin and breaks. Things are not browned properly. You see what I mean?
Also, I have always wondered about the noodles at dumplings shops. I just don't get it. Why are they there?
It is hard enough to master one of these age-old magnificent foods, let alone two. Why even bother? Why not focus on one, and pray for the fortitude and wherewithal to master your craft?
My initial hunch was that the noodles at dumplings joints would be no good. (Now of course most places in Chinatown have dumplings on their menu, so I am talking about the specialty shops, places where the word "dumpling" is in their name, or they profess in some other way to being mainly purveyors of dumplings.) At the end of the week I'd tried noodles at four dumpling shops around Chinatown, and dumplings, too, at all of them.
The conclusion? I was wrong.
I found that the noodles at dumpling shops can be worth eating, and that at least one fried dumpling shop is making them as I remember from China.
The best noodles I ate were from Prosperity Dumpling on Eldridge street. They were egg noodles, cooked perfectly al dente, and dressed in a light peanut sauce that was good on its own, and might have even been better with a bit of chili oil and soy sauce. All for $1.75. What a bargain, especially considering the quality.
On the other hand, I find Prosperity's dumplings forgettable, but they are also not offensive in any way. On my visit, the filling was neither particularly porky nor juicy, but it came with lots of chives. Their skins were serviceable.
My favorite dumplings came from Tasty Dumpling, the winner of Serious Eats' fried dumpling taste test last year. But their noodles were merely okay. Curly strands tasted like a thick version of ramen (that's good) but were not flavorful (that's bad), nor was there any hint of tongue-numbingness in their "ma-la noodles." And their price tag ($3) seemed almost exorbitant, considering that you can get more than ten of their excellent fried dumplings for that price.
Now I would have been happy going to either Prosperity or Tasty for either their dumplings or their noodles. Unfortunately the same could not be said for me of Vanessa's Dumpling House. Wow, this place sure was clean and packed, compared to Tasty and Prosperity, which are more run-of-the-mill Chinatown establishments. Vanessa's dumplings were almost okay, but their noodles, well, the noodles were not something I feel I would ever need to try again. Instead of the more common peanut sauce, there was sesame sauce, bitter and chalky, poured over noodles that strangely, tasted like nothing at all.
The wild-card candidate in this week's test was C and L Dumpling, where I was told that the peanut noodles were something worth seeking out.
I should point out that the most incredible thing about C and L is that nothing on the menu appears to exceed three or four dollars, even though they are a sit-down place. Of course they take care to keep overhead costs low by scrimping on unnecessary frills, such as extra plates. And silverware. And napkins. All of these things were not easy to come by, and when requested, were handed to us with grudging frugality. Unfortunately, their dumplings suffered from so many problems that I did not even finish one.
But for a measly two bucks at C and L, you get your noodles served on a silver platter! Well, okay, more like an aluminum bowl—a large portion of round rice noodles, slithering in a salty, sweet, peanut-y concoction that hits all the right notes. It was just sweet enough, and just salty enough, to keep you coming back for more. And this was a nice surprise—the pile of stir-fried greens came with the noodles, so that for $2, you get starch, nuts, and greens all in one.
I will probably continue to try more noodles at more dumpling shops in Manhattan and beyond. For now, I was at least vindicated in my hunch that it is really too much to expect, for one shop to have mastered both dumplings and noodles. We should all be so lucky as to do one thing well.