January may be the middle of cuffing season, but I’d say it’s starting to look more like dumpling season. When the Bay cools down just a little, it feels like a drastic change, especially near the water. This might be why the Sunset District, which runs right out to Ocean Beach, is full of delicious dumpling restaurants. Of course, it’s more directly due to the long-established Chinese American community, but the onset of winter still sets the perfect dumpling mood for diners of all backgrounds.
Going into this excursion with a wealth of background information, I knew I was in for several treats. That is why I heeded the bevy of online reviews practically screaming for me to try the Shanghai Steamed Soup Dumplings at Dumpling Kingdom. Usually, I will bend over backward to be a cuisine trendsetter, but I’m really glad that I swallowed my pride, and then these dumplings. Otherwise known as XiaoLongBao, these morsels are special in the sense that they are filled with warm broth, amongst the traditional meat and veggie combinations.
So as not to embarrass yourself or give those around you first degree burns, it is important to note that there is a very specific technique to eating these babies. First, place a dumpling on your spoon. Then, poke a small hole in the fleshy pocket, allowing some of the soup to seep out. Sip on the soup and dip your spoon in your personally created sauce composed of chili oil, vinegar, and soy sauce. And finally, savor it.
Although I had explained this process to my dining partner, they shrugged it off, muttering, “I know how to eat food,” before promptly taking a fresh bite and squirting hot liquid all over the table.
Despite the hazards, the dumplings were soft and buttery, with ten bucks getting you eight soupy bites. The wrappers were chewy and had the right thickness to hold everything nicely inside. The soup was light and not overly salted, which I often find to be the fatal flaw in dishes which utilize a simple broth. The house vinegar and chili oil made a great accompaniment too, with neither being overwhelmingly bitter or spicy.
This location had the longest wait time, which is not surprising, but they had a nifty iPad reservation app that sends you a text message when your table is ready. I found this preferable over waiting around the doorway for thirty minutes, staring enviously at other patrons’ plates.
1935 Taraval St
San Francisco, CA 94116
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. Wednesday, Closed.
Kingdom of Dumpling
Another location that is constantly busy and has its own special way of dealing with long wait times is Kingdom of Dumpling, a mere two blocks from Dumpling Kitchen. There is a sign-up sheet, and an affable host who takes your order before you even sit down. This way, the frustration of waiting dissipates when your steaming food is delivered the second your butt hits the chair.
The shop is very small, with tables practically overlapping and some thigh-to-thigh action is a given during busy hours. This restaurant is very homey, and it isn’t just because of the loud chatter and induced claustrophobia. Customers from all cultures and walks of life join together here to share their passion for all things wrapped in dough.
The vegetarian dumplings, which I ordered “spicy” as per recommendation (again, out of character for me), were not as flavorful as the last batch, and ended up being more refreshing than savory per se. One order came with twelve for about $10, including the spicy sauce. The minced cabbage, carrots, and cilantro were packed with the bright and fresh taste of springtime. Mild, earthy tones evoked some herbal remedy, delivered in a convenient, edible package.
With each one soaked in chili oil, I found my tastebuds buzzing between mild and hot bites. This made for a more interesting dining experience, and as someone who loves to snack on contrasting flavors, it was much appreciated. Also, their house chili sauce is cream based, which I found paired better with the already oil-slick dumplings that I ordered.
Kingdom of Dumpling is located less than a mile from their production location, so freshness is guaranteed. They sell their most popular fare in frozen packages for convenient dining at home. With the ability to be whipped up in a flash, they make the perfect lazy Sunday meal.
1713 Taraval St
San Francisco, CA 94116
Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m., 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Saturday 11:30 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
This brings me to Yummy Dumpling. The location does not offer a dine-in option, but their authenticity and dedication to the craft definitely puts them on the list.
The small shop has several counters that are completely covered in trays upon trays of dumplings. Employees load and pinch each one at an impressive pace and assemble them into neat, clean lines. The menu is vast, with pork & napa cabbage, corn & chicken, and pork & chive being some of the main customer favorites. For about $8, you can get twenty dumplings, which is pretty decent considering the quality. There is even a handy How-To tutorial available for those who have mastered the pierogi, but not the dumpling.
I went ahead and bought a bag of the corn & chicken, so as to get a little variety of flavor. The thing I like the most about Yummy Dumpling is that you get your food prepared however and whenever you wish. Though they are traditionally boiled or steamed, I decided to fry mine, which resulted in something closer to Japanese Gyoza (pan-fried dumplings).
I fell in love at first bite. The wrappers are much thicker, which works to accommodate all of the juices. The crispy, oiled outer shell added a nice crunch to the succulent and soft meat. With the sweetness of corn and bite of garlic, there was indeed a party in my mouth. The distinction in flavor made this party one that I didn’t want to leave immediately (for once).
This was by far my favorite of the three. The great taste of these dumplings can probably be credited to the lack of a dining space, which allows the staff to concentrate solely on dumpling making, rather than customer service. I may be a little biased, as I am a homebody through and through, but it was nice getting to eat something delicious in the comforts of my own home.
1708 Irving St
San Francisco, CA 94122
Monday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
The next time you are in the Sunset, feeling forlorn and stifling sniffles from the cold, allow yourself the comforts of a piping hot dumpling. Thanks to the rich cultural foundation of the area, there are plenty of options to choose from. This can be overwhelming, but regardless, you know you’ll get a great meal. So forget the idea of needing a significant other to survive the winter. Dumplings are just as satisfying, and the best thing is that they can never leave you...that is, until you digest them.
Update: Hoodline reported 3 days ago that Dumpling Kitchen has suddenly closed and its owner is retiring. We're sorry to see such an amazing dumpling institution go and will continue the search for more dumpling restaurants in San Francisco.
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