A singular experience
Exploring a hidden gem on The Esplanade
At its best, a trip to a restaurant is a journey down another person’s private rabbit hole. You can always go to Chipotle, where you get a corporation’s best guess at what’s trending. But I like eateries run by real people, with a high “quirk factor.”
Such a place is House of Dumpling (2599 Esplanade). There are many indications here that you aren’t in Kansas anymore, beginning with the name. Not “Dumplings”? Perhaps it’s a place where one goes to dumple.
The pleasant vertigo continues if you go to either of the two websites, where you’ll find the restaurant identified as “Tony’s” (the name of the owner’s previous place) at one, and an “s” added to “Dumpling” at the other. The menu has its own unique touches: the “Packpage” special, the “hot tee,” and the ethnically ambiguous “Ramon.” Not that menu details matter much. I always order the combo, which comes with an egg roll and a drink, but I get the egg roll about half the time and I’ve yet to see the drink.
The décor is of a piece with the menu. There are two approaches to Chinese restaurant décor: House of Rice fire sale—buddhas, dragons—and WTPOL (whatever the previous owner left). House of Dumpling leans toward WTPOL. The chairs have ships’ wheels worked into the backs. There’s a framed photo of a hamburger and fries, bearing the cryptic legend “9/25/2011 10:05 PM.” Relax with a copy of the Chico Enterprise-Record—dated September 2005.
Let none of this put you off. Joe Jiang, the owner/cook/waiter, is a pleasant and friendly man who will whip you up fresh, tasty food made to order. Once, he took my order and plopped a pot of hot tea (or “tee”) on the counter gratis. The menu, for a one-man show, is vast. While some of the more sophisticated dishes, like mu shu, aren’t here, there are 11 soups, lots of conventional meat-with-something-on-rice dishes, 12 noodle dishes including chow fun, appetizers, and 10 more adventurous chef’s specials (e.g., Mountain East Chicken Wing). It’s all clean and unpretentious and up there with the best Chinese food in town. But at the heart of the menu are the dumplings and the pancakes, both hard to find elsewhere and splendid, made from Jiang’s scratch dough.
Dumplings are a lot like pot stickers, only boiled. Don’t order them if you’re alone—they come 12 on a plate, and they’re rich, so I can only handle about five before keeling over. The garlic dipping sauce is killer—ask for seconds. And ask Jiang about what he calls “the story” of dumplings. He takes justifiable pride in his, for both culinary and cultural reasons. He’ll tell you they’re the basic treat food for all northern Chinese celebrations, like s’mores on American camping trips. The pancakes are more like quesadillas than flapjacks, thin grilled Chinese flatbread with the filling of your choice.
During my many trips to House of Dumpling, I’ve always been the only customer, a situation I hope you’ll rectify. Yet I wonder. Jiang is the entire restaurant staff. He isn’t slow, but he is only one person, so I can’t imagine what would happen if a party of eight were to walk in. You could avoid a wait by phoning ahead for takeout, but eating a restaurant’s food in your own kitchen is like going to Paris and staying at the Super 8—you miss the cultural experience.
House of Dumpling’s prices range from breathtakingly cheap ($5.99 for the kung pao chicken combo) to a moderate $10-$12 for the more elaborate dishes. Portions are large. Bring a couple of extra layers if you go before the spring thaw—Joe doesn’t believe in central heating.