Ascent to dumpling heaven
Journey to the Dumpling
Elk Grove, CA 95758
That people are even comparing Journey to the Dumpling to Taiwan’s most famous restaurant, Din Tai Fung, is amazing. That people angrily state Journey to the Dumpling isn’t as good as Din Tai Fung, the No. 1 destination in the world for xiao long bao, is dumb. Of course the 3-month-old Elk Grove restaurant hasn’t achieved the same perfection as Din Tai Fung.
What people should be saying is that Journey to the Dumpling is a fabulous local restaurant that somewhat reminds them of Din Tai Fung, with its contemporary interior, upscale service, attractive plating and focus on xiao long bao while still offering an array of Chinese dishes.
Journey to the Dumpling’s xiao long bao ($9.50) are easily the best in the region. The adorable pouches hold piping hot, deeply savory soup and a little nugget of soft pork. Gently lift the dumpling onto a soup spoon, poke a hole in the delicate skin to let steam escape and patiently wait until it’s cool enough to devour. The side of vinegary, gingery sauce is a great complement.
In general, dumplings reign supreme here—a much-needed change of pace from other local Chinese restaurants that consider them afterthoughts. Even the simple pork and chive dumplings ($8.95) are juicy revelations, superior to the beloved versions at Yang’s Noodles. The potstickers arrive as they should but rarely do: upside-down, with a large ring of fried crispiness connecting each individual unit. The shrimp and zucchini version ($9.50) offers a nice lightness. Wontons ($8.50) are also well-prepared, topped with a brilliant chili paste, scallions and peanuts.
One rarity is the pan-fried pork buns ($9.50), otherwise known as sheng jian bao, the cousin of xiao long bao. While xiao long bao are prized for their fragility, these buns are sturdy and doughy with a crunchy bottom. Inside, they, too, contain a delicious porky soup with an extra sweetness from corn.
Journey to the Dumpling falls a bit from grace with the rest of its menu, which consists of appetizers, noodles and rice dishes from all over China. The Shaanxi province’s roujiamo ($9.50), for example, resembles a burger, with stewed pork belly stuffed into a lightly pan-fried bun. It’s a little underseasoned and dry but greatly benefits from a dunk in the restaurant’s quality chili oil. The Northern Chinese beef roll ($9.50) mostly suffers from its scallion pancake, which misses the flakiness that makes other versions so satisfying.
While the handmade, chewy noodles in the Journey Noodle Soup ($8.50) were fantastic, the soup itself felt more like a tired, oily sauce. The highly recommended Yang Chow Fried Rice ($10.95) turned out to be perfectly adequate, but nothing special. In general, this part of the menu feels like unnecessary filler, but the young restaurant could improve these items with time.
For dessert, do order the fried mantou appetizer ($5.95): soft, fluffy white buns turned golden and crispy. They’re delicious dunked in condensed milk.
Owners Yvonne Nguyen, Chris Tan and Justin Yang come from Elk Grove’s Asian-Cajun restaurant Chason’s Crab Stadium. In almost no time, they’ve created a destination-worthy, family-friendly Chinese restaurant that received lots of buzz prior to opening. For the first month or so, you couldn’t get in without waiting an hour, seemingly no matter what time you showed up. It’s quieted down since then, but don’t be surprised if you roll up during prime time and can’t sit right away. Still, you’d certainly have to wait in a longer line at Din Tai Fung.