The Hot Plate: Quest for the Perfect Dumpling

Chinatown Treat Gets Taste Test

Posted February 20, 2009 at 3:14pm

Not all dumplings are created equal. Some can be light and flavorful, while others are tough and lackluster. With so many Chinese restaurants in Chinatown offering dumplings, how is a diner to know which serves the most delectable option? Roll Call set out to find the answer to this question.

[IMGCAP(1)]After seeking suggestions and narrowing the field down to four restaurants, I gathered a few Roll Call staffers — all self-professed “experts” in Chinese dumplings — and held a taste test. The dumplings were evaluated on the quality of the dough and filling, whether they stayed together while being eaten and their overall flavor. We rated the dumplings on a scale of one to five stars. The results: We tasted some of the best and some of the worst dumplings available on H Street.

Tony Cheng’s Restaurant (619 H St. NW)
Vegetable: 4 1/2 stars
Pork: 4 1/2 stars

Tony Cheng’s made its biggest impression on the dumpling panel with its vegetable option. While the other restaurants offered boring fillings made entirely of cabbage or of vegetables that were not finely chopped, Tony Cheng’s offered the perfect filling. Not only was the inside of the dumpling multicolored, but it was also wonderfully textured and tasty. Water chestnuts mixed in with other vegetables added a nice crunch. The dough of the dumpling was delicate and much easier to cut than the other samples that we tried.

The pork dumplings were just as good, primarily because the balance was right: not too much dough and plenty of meat filling. The dough was strong enough to hold the food together without being overly tough. While one of our judges complained that they were a tad on the spicy side, Tony Cheng’s was Roll Call’s pick for the best dumplings in Chinatown.

Full Kee Restaurant (509 H St. NW)
Pork: 3 stars

Full Kee doesn’t offer vegetable dumplings, but it does offer some decent pork dumplings. The panel’s chief complaint was the size. The dumplings were the largest that we tasted, making them hard to manage with a fork or a pair of chop sticks. One panel member commented on the excess amount of meat and dough, calling the food “monstrous.” Nevertheless, the dumplings were good, but not great. The meat was less flavorful than Tony Cheng’s, and the dough was very tough, making them hard to cut with chop sticks.

Chinatown Express (746 Sixth St. NW)
Vegetable: 1 star
Pork: 3 stars

While some diners may not recognize the name Chinatown Express, they’re likely to know the restaurant. Sitting on the corner of H and Sixth streets Northwest, this restaurant is known for the noodles made by two chefs who are visible through the front window.

Unfortunately, the chefs might be entertaining, but it’s not clear their talent extends to dumplings. The vegetable dumplings from Chinatown Express were tied with the vegetable offering from Wok and Roll Restaurant for the worst that we tasted. While the dumplings were small and less doughy, there was no variety in the filling, which led to lackluster flavor. The filling tasted very much like the inside of an egg roll and seemed to be composed only of cabbage.

The pork dumplings were a vast improvement on the vegetable dumplings, with added greens and better spicing than at places like Wok and Roll. Another saving grace at Chinatown Express is the variety of sauces. Both the pork and vegetable dumplings came with four sauce options, including one of pickled garlic and another of spicy pepper.

Wok and Roll Restaurant (604 H St. NW)
Vegetable: 1 star
Pork: 2 1/2 stars

I must admit, in the interest of full disclosure, that I love Wok and Roll. Of all the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, it is the one that I frequent the most. I love the fact that the Surratt House — where John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators plotted President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination — is home to the restaurant, and I also love the happy hour specials, which include $1 pieces of sushi and cheap beer.

Despite all of this, Wok and Roll disappointed the dumpling panel. We tried the steamed vegetable and steamed pork dumplings, both of which were underwhelming in comparison to the other restaurants. Our chief complaint was the excess of dough and the lack of filling. One panelist noted that it is important for the dough to hold the food together without overpowering the flavor of the meat, something that Wok and Roll failed to do. Even with all that dough, the dumplings still didn’t stay together while they were stabbed with a fork.

The main problem with the vegetable dumplings were the vegetables themselves. Nestled inside the dough were whole kernels of corn and peas rather than chopped vegetables. One of our panel members noted that it seemed as though the restaurant had purchased a bag of mixed vegetables at the grocery store and filled the dumplings with them.