Contrarily to what you may think from my recent posts, I’m not only just eating pat bing soo and drinking cappuccinos. Unfortunately, I only get to enjoy them just maybe once or twice a week; Korean coffee shops are expensive!
On our last night together, Jane and I wanted to eat something extra delicious and special. And we knew exactly what we wanted to eat: dumplings.
According to Jane, she has to seek out xiao long bao (soup dumplings) wherever she visits. Having studied in New York City, Jane has already tried America’s best xiao long baos at Joe’s Shanghai. In fact, she took me there the first night I visited her in NYC.
I warned her. I told her that nothing can probably measure up to Joe Shanghai’s lovely, plump and juicy xiao long baos. Not even Din Tai Fung, the famous Taiwanese xiao long bao chain because for some reason, all the great Asian branches that reach American soil just withers in comparison to the native ones (but why oh why is that NOT true for American chains like McDonald’s?!).
But Jane insisted she had to have at least one xiao long bao in her belly before I sent her off. How could I say no? Especially because I craved xiao long bao myself.
I did a brief research, and we decided to visit Mama Lu’s.
Or Mama’s Lu. That’s strange. Is it Mama Lu’s or Mama’s Lu? Why would Mama have a Lu? What is a Lu? Probably a grammatical mistake, right? Gargh, now that is going to bug me for the whole day.
Anyway. The typo/grammatical atrocity aside, I loved the three words they printed below the name: “一口福” or “A mouthful of blessing.” I think that’s the perfect description for dumplings. I could feel my stomach growling as I pushed open the door.
In order to get to Mama Lu’s (I’m going to go with my grammatical precision here), we had to drive out to Monterey Park, which is one of the cities that make up the west San Gabriel Valley, aka Not-So-Little Taiwan.
I love the San Gabriel Valley. I would live there if it wasn’t so far away from my school. SGV is the place to go for cheap, authentic Chinese food and dingy, well-stocked Chinese grocery stores. Maybe one day I’ll live there—if I actually find a job in L.A., that is.
There is something about a Chinese restaurant. You walk in, and you’re instantly hit by a tide of gnawing hunger and raging appetite. Or is it just me?
By the way, I know what you’re thinking: ooh look at all the Chinese people eating here! This must be a great authentic Chinese place then!
Wrong! Racist! One-third of them turned out to be Koreans. I was so proud of them. We Koreans have a good nose for good food.
We were seated pretty quickly. We actually came at a perfect time because the moment we were seated, crowds started to pile in. And it was a Monday night!
Complimentary appetizers: roasted peanuts sprinkled with sugar and pickled cucumbers.
They were lovely. The cucumbers were bright and crunchy and just the right balance of sweet and sour. The peanuts were more savory than sweet, but the light sprinkle of sugar really brings out the juices in your mouth.
Ooh. My second favorite part is getting ready for the dumpling dipping. Soy sauce + black vinegar + fresh slivers of ginger and a side of warm tea.
Because we are greedy and because the dishes were so dirt cheap, we ended up ordering four full dishes to share. I chose two, Jane chose the other two.
Sophia’s dish #1: Lion’s Head meatballs
These aren’t your average meatballs. They are called lion’s head because they are big-ass humongous. They’re made with ground pork and stewed in a umami-rich sauce.
I freaking LOVED this. The meat—they just crumble and melt in your mouth!!! It’s a pretty fatty dish, because the ground pork for the balls need to meet a certain amount of fat. No wonder it is so wonderfully tender! And the sauce that came with it—I could eat anything in the world, even liver, if it was drenched in this sauce!
And the vegetables…they just soaked up all the lovely juices and flavors. I couldn’t stop eating them. There was silence for a full 15 minutes because I was just munching, shoving, swallowing, munching again.
In northern China, this dish usually comes with four meatballs, but they only served us three meatballs. Perhaps they didn’t think two Korean ladies could finish all four. Oh well. Jane ate one, I finished the other two.
Jane’s dish #1: Pork Wontons and Chinese vegetables in Broth
Lovely. The soup was flavorful and refreshing.
The wontons were nicely wrapped; I can’t stand wontons that burst in the seams and leak all their fillings into the soup. I would have liked a bit more filling in the wontons though.
Sophia’s dish #2: Pork and Shrimp and Napa Cabbage dumplings
Jane and I reached a consensus on this one: this was the star dish of the night. Oh my holy deliciousness!!! Mouthful of blessing indeed.
The wrapper was made by hand, but it was kneaded to a perfect thickness—awesome filling:wrapper ratio.
A tip on ordering dumplings:
1) AVOID chicken dumplings. Chicken has NO business in dumplings.
2) Also, try to get dumplings with at least a bit of pork in it. Plain vegetable dumplings are blah. Shrimp adds a nice sweetness, but it still needs some pork to balance the sweetness out.
3) The only instance fried isn’t as good as steamed is dumplings. The fried taste just masks to purity and juiciness of the dumplings for me.
Take heed! The Dumpling Sage has spoken.
Jane’s dish #2: Pork Xiao Long Baos
The only disappointment of the night. The wrapper for these xiao long baos were too thick, too clumsy, too gummy. They weren’t bad, but as Jane said: “They’re no Joe’s Shanghai soup dumplings.”
At least they had good soup inside. The worst is xiao long baos with only a droplet of soup—if you ever get soup dumplings without enough soup, send them back. I insist.
This night was near-perfect. Jane and I just stuffed ourselves silly and talked and talked through the night. And before we knew it, we demolished all four dishes.
Holy cow. Where did all the food go? Surely not my little stomach? And I had planned to take leftovers home for lunch next day!
We had a lot of fun together. It was lovely catching up with an old friend and it made me almost miss northern Virginia.
Jane’s brought me a lot of blessings, and she brought another new blessing to me this time.
While showing her around Los Angeles, I felt a puff of pride for this city. I’ve only lived here for two years, but I still feel a sense of belonging here that I didn’t really feel in Virginia (not Virginia’s fault; I just have bad memories there).
Even though Jane has left, I find myself looking and experiencing Los Angeles with a more curious appreciation. I’m hoping to discover more awesome and unique things about this—my—city, and I can’t wait to share more.
Starting with Koreatown, I plan to explore Los Angeles with an empty stomach and an unwavering curiosity. I shall leave no stones unturned, no coffee shops unslurped, and no taco stand unburped. Now that I have a car, it’s all the more possible.
Let’s get ready to do some burping and slurping.
Question of the Day: What interests you most about Los Angeles? What do you expect of Los Angeles?