“And her dumplings were so light they would float in the air and you’d have to catch ’em to eat ’em.”
~Author: Fannie Flagg
Think you know dumplings? Believe you’ve tried almost every type of dumpling there is? That’s what I thought until discovering a Wikipedia page called “List of dumplings” which essentially opened up a large world of ne’er sampled dumplings. For the glass-is-half-full types among us, this list is a challenge…an opportunity to broaden our dumpling horizons. Alas, such a horizon (and waist) broadening experience will mean crossing many borders. Not surprisingly, not every dumpling type is to be found in the Duke City, although you just might be surprised at just how many types of dumplings you can find within our little slice of heaven on Earth.
Your veritable “around the world in fifty dumplings” tour should start at Ming Dynasty where the dim sum menu showcases such Chinese dumpling treasures as crab Rangoon, har gow (shrimp dumplings), shumai (steamed dumplings stuffed with prawns), sausage buns, steamed barbecue pork buns, shrimp stuffed bean curd and several others prepared so authentically and so well you might swear you’re in Hong Kong. For a dumpling tour of Japan you need go no further than Magokoro where some of the best gyoza (a mix of chicken and pork potstickers) is to be found. For the best dumplings in the exotic Indian sub-continent, track down the Karibu Cafe’s mobile kitchen where the samosas are sumptuous. Better yet, visit the Cafe on Eubank. There’s no need to meet in the mountains of Nepal to enjoy momos, steamed or fried vegetable and meat dumplings with flavors as impressive as Mount Everest. Visit Namaste for these momentous momos. One of the Duke City’s best kept secrets is the Arirang Oriental Market where you’ll find the best Mandu (Korean potstickers) in New Mexico
Enthusiasm in Europe runs high for dumplings. At the Red Rock Deli, you’ll want to play Russian roulette with the restaurant’s incomparable sweet and savory pierogi and nalesniki. Even if you can’t pronounce them, you’ll also want to order pyzy, grated Polish potato dumplings. For the best fruit filled empanadas (blueberry is the bomb) in town, a trip to the Golden Crown Panaderia is in order while savory empanadas are made incomparably well at The Farmacy. If you’re one of the few Duke City diners who hasn’t visited El Modelo for their fabulous tamales, your around-the-world tour should be reason enough to drop everything you’re doing. These are arguably the best tamales in New Mexico. Several metropolitan restaurants offer delicious versions of Italian dumplings, one exemplar being Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho where you can enjoy mouth-watering gnocchi, ravioli and tortellini. If Southern-style chicken and dumplings are more your style, Bucket Headz is your hook-up.
“”What’s this?” you ask. “Empanadas and tamales are a type of dumpling?” “Ravioli, too?” According to Wikipedia and several dictionaries, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Not only are empanadas, tamales and ravioli a type of dumpling, but so are matzo balls, wontons and even Yorkshire pudding. Most dictionaries are rather noncommittal in firming up a definition for the term “dumpling,” though most seem to agree dumplings include a portion of dough or batter that is usually steamed or boiled…though they can be baked or fried. The Kitchen Project goes a bit further: “It can be a batter or dough rolled out that is cooked by itself or filled with anything from meat to fruit. It can be a main dish, side dish or dessert.”
The term “dumpling” is even used as a descriptor for people and animals, the context being “something soft and rounded like a dumpling, especially a short fat person or animal.” Thankfully at 6’1” that sobriquet probably won’t ever be used to describe me. With such versatility and universality, we can probably agree that the dumpling is practically a food group in itself. There isn’t a culture on planet Earth that doesn’t enjoy dumplings in one form or another, finding extraordinary satisfaction in biting into a filled or unfilled, crescent-shaped or not, fried, steamed, boiled, sweet or savory, main course or dessert…culinary conundrum.
Unless you consider Chef Boyardee’s “Raviolios” a type of dumpling, my sole experience with dumplings was with empanadas and tamales–until the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts. There this unacculturated, bumpkinly hayseed from Peñasco discovered Italian dumplings at such paragons of dumpling deliciousness as Mario’s Italian Restaurant in Lexington. Later when my friends frequented the “Combat Zone,” Boston’s notorious red light district, for adult “entertainment,” I walked the streets of Chinatown in pursuit of dumplings in the area’s dumpling houses. Despite the name, dumplings weren’t the exclusive offering at these dens of dumpling deliciousness; they also offered an extensive array of Chinese delicacies.
Albuquerque’s very first dumpling house launched in September, 2014 within the sprawling confines of the Talin Market. The curious appellation Pop-Up Dumpling House implies it’s a mini-restaurant not tied to one brick-and-mortar edifice that doesn’t function as a full-time restaurant. True enough this Pop-Up enterprise is open only on Fridays and Saturdays in Albuquerque and on Mondays in Santa Fe. Step into Albuquerque’s commodious Talin Market and the aromas emanating from the dumpling house don’t just pop up; they lure you in like an irresistible siren’s call. It’s a delicious detour you’ll want to repeat over and over again.
A small menu belies the huge flavors you’ll encounter at the Pop-Up Dumpling House. Aside from dumplings, the menu offers a number of noodle dishes including an addictive beef noodle soup, beef chow fun and dan dan noodles. Two mini sandwiches–a “duckwich” and a braised pork belly sandwich–what many of us would consider “finger foods” are also available as are appetizer sized bowls of spicy steamed eggplant and hot and spicy cucumbers. As at sushi restaurants everywhere, you place your order on a paper menu you can mark up with your lunch or dinner choices. Your meal will be delivered minutes later with the dumplings likely being the last item you receive as they’re prepared to order. That’s right! They don’t sit under some heat lamp until someone orders them.
True to the name on the marquee (if the pop-up restaurant had one), the big draw at this Pop-Up is dumplings–delicious, delectable, overstuffed delights–which are handmade by a friendly Sichuan family. Watching Susan at work is a real treat. She handcrafts each and every dumpling, paying meticulous attention to her work. The dumplings are engorged (not an exaggeration) with your choice of lamb, rib eye, shrimp, traditional (pork), vegetarian, wild coho salmon and (on occasion) lobster. Eight plump dumplings comprise an order (or you can split an order into four dumplings of two different types) along with your choice of hot and sour or egg drop soup. Your choice from among three dipping sauces–traditional, spicy or Sichuan-style–completes your order and frankly, that may be more than enough.
15 July 2016: During our first three visits we’ve enjoyed three different dumplings: traditional pork, rib eye and lobster. These dumplings aren’t exactly standard in size or shape, but the telltale hand-pinched seal that keeps the filling in place is readily apparent. It’s a Tupperware-like seal that prevents the filling from spilling out while the dumplings are immersed in a boiling bath which renders them soft, but chewy. Bite into them and you expose the minced protein with which the dumplings are stuffed. Tiny bits of carrot and scallions punctuate the pork and lamb. Though most familiar to anyone who frequents Chinese restaurants, the traditional pork dumplings may be the most satisfying. From the lamb-filled dumplings, we just didn’t get much of the gaminess that characterizes lamb. With the sweet, briny flavor of lobster, the lobster dumplings transported us to the coast of Maine where even locals would enjoy them immensely.
Though the dumplings need absolutely no amelioration, the dipping sauces provide an additional level of flavor and interest. For New Mexicans used to piquant flavors, neither the spicy or even spicier Sichuan-style sauces will be much of a challenge, but they do boost the flavor profile. Both the spicy sauce and the Sichuan-style sauce are redolent with aromatic, herbaceous notes inherent from a unique peppercorn-like spice we’ve experienced at a few Asian restaurants. In any case, with or without sauces, the dumplings warrant a return visit on their own.
23 June 2017: Hot and sour soup and egg drop soup have become such de rigueur options at Chinese restaurants that it’s a surprise when something else is offered. It’s even a greater surprise when either soup is more than just passable. The Pop-Up Dumpling House’s hot and sour soup borders on greatness. No! Make that this hot and sour soup is great!…as in among the very best in the city great. This intensely flavored elixir actually lives up to its name, imparting a vinegar sweetness and Sichuan and black pepper heat. It’s also served hot. The steamy, nasal-clearing heat rises up to cure whatever may be ailing you. My friend Bill Resnik, he of the encyclopedic culinary knowledge and a far better cook than I, did point out that the hot and sour soup didn’t have two of his favorite ingredients, wood ear mushrooms and lotus petals. I hadn’t missed them until he pointed out their absence. Ingredients not withstanding, you’ll enjoy this soup.
9 July 2016: You can easily fill up with even a half order (four) of dumplings and a bowl of hot and sour soup. Don’t let that sway you against ordering yet another outstanding soup. The beef noodle soup, a swimming pool-sized bowl redolent with the olfactory-arousing aroma of star anise and rich with mildly astringent bak choy is fabulous! Long, thick noodles swim in the coffee-colored broth where larger than bite-sized chunks of beef are submerged. This is the type of soup which tastes just as good, if not better, the next day. It’s not likely you’ll finish it during your visit unless you forego having dumplings and that would be a shame.
9 July 2016: Hot and spicy cucumbers are a perfect foil for the beef noodle soup, providing the type of contrast which goes oh so well with the rich, sweet-savory broth. Thin-sliced cucumbers cut diagonally are seasoned with oil, red chile flakes and Sichuan pepper, rendering them deliciously piquant and reminiscent of the cucumber pickles often served at Korean restaurants with banchan (side dishes) offerings. The hot and spicy cucumbers are delightfully crunchy and positively addictive and if you like the hot and spicy flavor profile, the hot and spicy soup is a palate-pleasing pairing.
9 July 2016: When she was a young child, one of my nieces referred to Beef Chow Fun as “fun chow.” From the mouth of babes oft emanates great wisdom. Beef Chow Fun can indeed be fun chow. The term “Chow Fun” applies to both a type of noodle and a popular stir-fried dish with meat and vegetables. Only very wide noodles, usually made from ground rice, qualify as chow fun. At a minimum, they’re usually about an inch-wide and can range in length from six to twelve inches. At the Pop-Up Dumpling restaurant, the noodles are stir-fried with bak choy, carrots, white onions and celery. While the addition of vegetables may sound healthy, chow fun shouldn’t be considered a health food as it’s fairly oily and calorific though so delicious, it’s hard to show much restraint.
15 July 2016: If you’ve got just a little room left after polishing off an order of dumplings and soup, one of the two sandwiches on the menu may be a nice option. Neither sandwich comes close to breaking the bank, each setting you back south of four dollars. The duckwich is a thing of great beauty—tender tendrils of moist, cold duck, thin slices of green apple and a smear of Hoison nestled in the same dough from which dumplings are made. Providing only five or six bites, let’s face it, this is finger food, but it’s duck and it’s delicious. The contrast of rich duck and tangy green apple slices is particularly pleasing. If duck isn’t what your heart desires, there’s also a braised pork belly sandwich with the inimitable flavor of smoked bacon with a fatty texture.
15 July 2016: One of the most irrefutable truths in the Albuquerque culinary world is that no restaurant prepares eggplant quite as well as Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho. It’s eggplant the way the culinary gods intended eggplant to be made. Despite his undying devotion to Joe’s stuffed eggplant, my friend Sr. Plata isn’t eggplant monogamous. He’ll try eggplant anywhere and any way its prepared. The Pop-Up Dumpling House’s version, spicy steamed eggplant is the antithesis of Joe’s in that it’s assertive and piquant, very reminiscent to a version you might have at a Korean restaurant. Silky eggplant is made hot and spicy courtesy of chili and Sichuan sauces. Much like tofu, eggplant absorbs and complements flavors very well. It’s an excellent canvas for the piquant pepper based sauce.
23 June 2017: Some of my more seasoned readers probably remember an American line of canned Chinese food products bearing the Chun King label. In the early 1960s, Chun King was bringing in $30 million in annual revenue and accounted for half of all U.S. sales of prepared Chinese food. Chun King wasn’t exactly authentic, having been created by a company which specialized in pizza rolls and frozen pizza. Seeing “Chongquing Noodles” on the Dumpling House rekindled memories of the Chun King products of yore. There’s no way, of course, the Dumpling House would serve anything as inauthentic as Chun King’s canned food. Chongquing Noodles have been described as “spicy and numbing noodle.” That description had me at “spicy.” The first thing you’ll notice about the Dumpling House’s Chongquing Noodles is its brownish-reddish color, a bit reminiscent of the contents of a spittoon. That color is courtesy of Szechuan style red oil, a red oil made with red pepper powder and other Chinese spices. For this fire-eating native New Mexican, the level of heat on this noodle dish barely registered, but more prevalent was its saltiness. A bit of desalinization would have helped what would otherwise have been a very nice, warming and comforting dish.
Popping in to the Pop-Up Dumpling House will enhance your appreciation for the humble and incomparably delicious dumpling. It’s a great place to start your own “around the world in 50 dumplings” tour.
Pop-Up Dumpling House
Talin World Food Market
88 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 23 July 2017
1st VISIT: 9 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Beef Noodle Soup, Pork Dumplings, Ribeye Dumplings, Lobster Dumplings Hot & Sour Soup, Egg Drop Soup, Beef Chow Fun, Hot & Spicy Cucumbers, Dan Dan Noodles, Chongquing Noodles, Spicy Steamed Eggplant, Duckwich