Beijing's Dumplings: The Good, The Bad and The Cheap

Where to go and what to avoid

I love dumplings of pretty much any variety but Korean mandu are, well, a little underwhelming. Since we have a few China trips planned this year, I figured Dim Sum could probably wait for our Hong Kong or Taiwan trip and obviously xiao long bao for Shanghai, but I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to get in some dumpling meals. All in all we had three different dumpling meals ranging from delicious to... disaster.

The Good: Duyichu (38 Quinman Street)

We hit the tail end of the lunchtime rush and didn't have to wait for a table upstairs at Duyichu but the Lonely Planet description of service at Duyichu as "no-frills" is certainly accurate and we did have to wait a while before placing our order. I actually have no idea if there is an English language menu because it seemed like the server in our area really didn't want to deal with us so I used google translate on what seemed to be the shaomai section of the menu (if you're not going to have data while traveling, you're probably just going to go with the tried and true "point and pray" method unless you bring a local). Some of it, of course, translated totally crazy but we were able to figure out what we wanted so when we finally did get a server's attention, we just pointed at the three different things on the menu.

The shaomai (shumai) I've had at most dim sum places in New York and California aren't usually my favorite. First off, I'm not a shrimp eater and you never really know if they're going to be all pork or have a secret shrimp waiting. Second, I don't know, they just often don't have that great a texture and are kind of boring. These shaomai were nothing like that. The wrappers were delicate and beautiful and the fillings extremely flavorful. The veggie filling which google translate had definitely partially described as "bird home" turned out to be garlicky greens, egg and tofu. Dan insisted on the classic pork and shrimp combination and was quite happy with it. The plain pork dumpling was the winner in my book, it was a gingery, garlicky filling with a bit of liquid in the bottom. Basically like if shaomai and xia long bao had a delicious, delicious baby. Each order of dumplings was eight pieces, and we didn't quiiite finish them all (I think three got left behind) despite the fact that we started out starving. We spent around $30.00 here, including our bottled water, which seemed totally worth it for the quantity and quality of food.

The Bad: Donghuamen Night Market (Dong An Men Da Jie)

The Bad: Dumplings from Dong An Men Da Jie (Donghuamen Night Market) Beijing

Look, I knew Donghuamen was going to be touristy and I figured it would be a little too expensive but who doesn't want to see other tourists eating scorpions on sticks? It was way too expensive, there wasn't that much variety and the things we had were pretty bad. The dumplings pictured above were some sort of beef coriander filling that was ok but the bun was dry and the bottom was hard and tough from sitting. We also got a bowl of garlicky noodles and told the vendor we didn't want her fried dumplings but she threw them on anyway "to try" but she definitely charged us for them. If we had been less hungry maybe we would've been able to deal with the pushy vendors better but it definitely seemed more irritating than fun. If you want the scorpion on a stick experience with less people yelling at you about their not very good food, I'd recommend Wangfujing Snack Street instead.

The Cheap: Zuo Lin You She (50 Meishuguan Back St)

These crazy long dumplings were our first meal in Beijing. I knew we were going to hit the ground running and conquer The Forbidden City on our first day but also that our morning flight and then drive to our lodgings meant we were going to be starving so I wanted something fast, cheap and filling. These bad boys don't look like much (and were a bit on the greasy side) but they left me satisfied. Zu Lin You She doesn't have any English signage on the outside, but the menu has all eighteen of the meat fillings and eight of the veggie fillings translated! I don't think any of the workers speak English, so we just drew a line with a chopstick from the English translation to the Chinese and the server entered it into her ordering pad. We went with spicy beef and coriander, pork and summer squash, pork, green pepper and coriander and, pork and cabbage. We also were planning on ordering tofu and mustard greens but the server cut us off with a hand gesture that implied we had already ordered more than enough for two people and she wasn't wrong.

Dan's favorite turned out to be the spicy beef and coriander he had chosen while mine was the pork, green pepper and coriander. The pork and cabbage was a pretty solid version of a standard gingery, garlic potsticker/fried dumpling filling but the pork and summer squash was a bit on the bland side (I wouldn't order it again). There's chili oil and vinegary soy sauce to mix in your dishes exactly the right size for the dumplings and I recommend slyly watching the other patron's dipping and eating methods since they can be a little hard to handle. This mountain of dumplings cost $6.00. TRUE STORY.

Tokyo Takeover: Nakano Broadway

(in which I eat foods as big as my face)

Dan's main priority in Japan may have been eating as much raw fish as possible but I had a different goal, eat as much crazy flavored soft serve as possible. Specifically, eat as many crazy flavors as possible on one cone.

For those unaware, I have a (currently neglected but soon to get A LOT of posts) side project called The Soft Serve Diaries that started as a tongue-in-cheek collection of serious reviews of every Mister Softee (or knock off Mister Softee) rainbow sprinkled, swirl cone I ate. Even though it started as a joke, I found that I had a lot of fun applying serious metrics to not serious food and as we traveled the world, my need to compare different country's soft serves became something of an obsession. I knew from instagram and tumblr that Japan was going to be prime soft serve eating country and as I searched for the absolute must-haves, one image kept reappearing over and over: the Tokudai Cone at Daily Chiko in the basement of Nakano Broadway. Eight layers of seasonally changing ingredients creating a cone taller than your face. I had to have it.

I also need to have some of these plastic soft serves for home decor

I also need to have some of these plastic soft serves for home decor

Thankfully, even though Dan has very little interest in eating soft serve himself, he supports my dreams of eating and reviewing soft serve like it's my job* and agreed to adventure to Nakano Broadway where I had read the soft serve was in the basement.

We exited the subway station and walked directly into a shopping arcade which is not Nakano Broadway. We realized we were maybe in the wrong place when we tried to go down to the basement and found ourselves in the world's noisiest casino, no ice cream in site. With stops at a few of the many groupings of claw machines full of exciting, nerdy plushes (Dan eventually asked me to cut off his coin supply) and a liquor store where we got the world's cutest bottle of Hibiki, we continued straight through the shopping arcade until we got to a large entrance that said "Nakano Broadway" and found ourselves in the actual mall. We found a staircase down to the basement pretty quickly and found ourselves in an area that mostly was full of butchers and fish mongers. Game for exploration, we figured we'd just walk around until we found Daily Chiko and pretty soon the "no soft serve" signs became more and more prevalent at the food vendors we passed. Finally, at the other end of the basement, in front of the Petit Paris, we found Daily Chiko and got in the long but fast moving line.

This is the face of somebody who spend the morning walking around Harajuku, in the hot sun, on a weekend, and held off eating any frozen treats so that she could make her dream come true but still doesn't quite believe it's happening.

Tokudai Soft Cream Daily Chiko Nakano Broadway Tokyo

Tokudai Soft Cream Daily Chiko Nakano Broadway Tokyo

I'm not sure quite how often the flavors change but every picture I've seen looks slightly different. The flavors when we went were: strawberry, coffee milk, vanilla, chocolate, sweet potato (!), caramel, matcha and "fizzing candy". Fizzing candy seems to always be a mix and from what I've read, what it really means is blue marble soda which has kind of a bubble gum taste. Since the cone is too big to eat like a normal soft serve at first, they give you small plastic spoons which worked surprisingly well. I was partial to the mix of strawberry and coffee milk at the top and really into the matcha layer at the bottom. Dan's flavor of choice was sweet potato. I actually thought the orange layer was melon flavored and was surprised when I was looking back through the pictures to see it was caramel. Since the flavors change, if I had the opportunity to go again, I'd still get all eight layers even though I had some stand out favorites. Plus, the Tokudai only costs about $4, so who can resist?!

Despite the size of our cone, we found ourselves in need of a savory snack after finishing since it was late afternoon and we hadn't eaten since mid-morning. We had passed large steam baskets of hand made dumplings on our way to Daily Chiko and we headed back to those.

After a day with a lot of walking, we were happy to find that "Handmaid Dim Sum Mata Ashita" had a small seating area and complimentary water. Dan chose an assortment of pork and shrimp gyoza but having already conquered eight layers of soft serve, I was set on conquering the face sized bun next. All of the dumpling were fresh and piping hot. The divinely fluffy bun was filled with a well seasoned mix of pork, scallion and ginger as were the tender skinned gyoza. Combined with the soft cream, it definitely made a full (if a little backwards) meal.

Street signs in Nakano, Tokyo

Now incredibly full, we decided it was best to do some walking and explored the three floors above us. Nakano Broadway is primarily known for it's numerous shops selling anime and figurines and we did a lot of wandering and looking incredulously at the prices of plastic godzillas as well as making a purchase of an assortment of cookies and snack and some postcards, before heading outside.

The streets in the neighborhood around the mall are chock full of small restaurants and bars and fantastic street lights. It had been a long day at this point but since Nakano wasn't really convenient to get back to, we decided to explore for a bit and maybe find a place to grab a drink.

Our final stop was this amazing 80s bar, which had this decor in the entryway and a sandwich board outside advertising it's happy hour and free song requests (I'm pretty sure this is the only sign we saw in English in the neighborhood). We ordered happy hour beers and were presented with a thick book of songs available with music videos and a thinner book of songs available without music videos and the proprietor gave us some slips of paper to make our requests. The music videos being projected seemed primarily to be from the 70s (which lead me to wonder where music videos were played before MTV came along) but the book seemed to mostly have selections from the 80s and everything about it was bizarre and wonderful. Eventually another couple who were clearly regulars came in and immediately wrote down their selection. After some time resting and laughing at the over the top cheesiness of every video, we gathered our stuff and headed back to our hotel to shower and slowly start thinking about what to eat next.

*but seriously, anyone looking for a soft serve columnist?

Ippudo

Ippudo Seoul Sinsadong

With so many good ramen places in New York, it's never seemed worth it to me to wait in the hour+ line to get into Ippudo no matter how much people raved about it, so when I found out there were THREE locations in Seoul I was both hopeful for shorter wait times and super excited to give it a try. We've gone to the original location in Sinsa-dong twice now and there has not been any sort of wait. Both times were right after Dan finished work on weeknights, so I don't know if it has busier times, but it's out of the way location makes me think it's probably always pretty low key.

Even though the ramen bowls here are HUGE, I can't resist a menu full of dumplings. This last time we went we had the Ippudo Hitoguchi Gyoza and the Ippudo bun. The first time we had the Ippudo bun and Ippudo Fried Gyoza.

Yes, I'm pretty into the Ippudo bun. The Chashu is fatty and tender, the sauce is a good balance of savory and sweet and the bun is delicious. My only complaints is that I would like half as much lettuce. I'm fine with a little bit of iceburg for texture, but a whole leaf folded up into one bun is too much.  I think the first time we went when we asked for a second bun, they brought us a bulgogi bun instead. Neither of us liked it as much as the Ippudo bun but it's interesting to see how Ippudo changes the menu to fit with local food preferences.

I think our Hitoguchi Gyoza were having an off night. The pork and chive filling was delicious but our dumplings were filled with oil - not like delicious flavorful fat, like actual fry oil. I recently got around to trying the similarly prepared ones at Menya Sandaime and they're excellent, so I'm not sure I'm willing to give the Ippudo ones another try.

I think the Ippudo Fried Gyoza are just the Hitoguchi Gyoza deep fried. It could just be the quality of the preparation, but we liked this version of them better. Dan did find them a little over-salted, but I liked them fine, especially with some lemon juice squeezed on top. I never would've thought to put lemon on deep fried gyoza, but the flavor contrast worked really well.

Ippudo is know for it's incredibly rich, creamy tonkotsu broth and it's reputation is well earned. Eating a bowl of Ippudo ramen feels much more decadent to me than a bowl from Menya Sandaime, Totto Ramen or even Momofuku*. It's delicious, but for me it's a little too rich for all the time (and, let's be real, I want to be eating ramen ALL THE TIME).

In our two visits we've tried the three global ramens as well as the Korea specific Shoyu Tonkotsu Ramen. The menu at Ippudo has all the names of dishes in English but the descriptions in Korean, and, frankly, my Korean is nowhere near good enough to translate them, so this last time we went, I pulled up a menu from Ippudo New York which at least has descriptions of the three global ramens (though there do seem to be some slight variations in toppings).

In our two visits Dan had the Shiromaru and the Shoyu. Both have Tonkotsu broth bases but the Shiromaru is simpler and creamier while the Shoyu has a greater complexity of flavor with a little less richness. Overall, Dan was more into the Shoyu but in both cases he really wished that Ippudo had the Schichimi Togarashi that most American ramen joints have on the table to add a little spice. You can order a side of the Ippudo Bakadan (original spicy paste) but it adds a lot more curry flavor than either of us really want.

My two orders have been the Akamaru and Karakamen, the two fancier global ramens with the addition of "three toppings" (extra chasu, nori sheets and a seasoned soft boiled egg). Karakamen has a special blend of hot spices while Akamaru has a miso paste and spice blend with a float of garlic oil. I found the Karakamen to be a lot more curry-y than spicy and it wasn't my favorite thing but if you enjoy curry ramen, this might be for you. The Akamaru was more my style, though, like Dan, I also wished there was a way to add more heat other than the Ippudo Bakadan. I was a little afraid that the garlic oil was going to be overwhelming but the tonkotsu broth is more than rich enough to stand up to it. I strongly recommend the addition of the nori sheets, I found as I ate and the broth absorbed more of their flavor, it became a more complex, better balanced broth for me.

I don't think I see myself ever standing in the line for Ippudo New York, but I'll happily keep going here in Seoul (especially since we just realized there's a location much closer to Dan's office).

Ippudo has three locations in Seoul, this review is for 645 Sinsa-dong

*I realize this is a weird mix of Seoul and New York restaurants but since Ippudo has locations in both cities, it seems appropriate.