This week, I got a tip from a Nosh reader that I had to get over to El Cerrito stat to try a new restaurant specializing in handmade Chinese dumplings. Fortunately, the name was easy enough to remember: New Dumpling. The morning I received the email, I knew exactly where I was going for lunch.
All kinds of small, unassuming mom-and-pop restaurants and shops abound in El Cerrito, and New Dumpling, which opened a little over a week ago in the space vacated by short-lived Cigar Box Kitchen, is pretty much that. Except in this case, it’s a son, daughter-in-law and mom who are running the show.
Alex Meng and his wife Gloria Tan are the friendly married owners; Meng’s mom, who I didn’t meet, helps out in the back. The three are originally from Shenyang, China, an area best known to the culinary world as the home of Laobian Dumpling, the popular restaurant chain revered for its thin-skinned and flavorful jiaozi. New Dumpling is the family’s first restaurant, but you wouldn’t know it from the execution of the food.
New Dumpling’s menu currently offers 10 styles of dumplings, one noodle soup (Szechuan beef noodle soup), and a variety of appetizers and side dishes. The restaurant is in soft opening phase, and Meng said he plans to add to the menu over time.
Dining solo meant I had to narrow down my choices to two dishes, so I asked Meng what his favorite dumplings were. He recommended the Napa Cabbage with Pork Dumplings and the Green Chive with Shrimp & Pork Dumplings, the latter being the most popular choice with his Chinese customers. I ordered the former, along with the Shredded Potato Salad.
While waiting for my order, I noticed two other women dining alone. The three of us were the only customers at the fairly small restaurant, and somehow, we all started talking. Coincidentally, Rose knew Eric, the reader who recommended New Dumpling to me; she also found out about the spot from him. Zari, who lives near the restaurant, is a returning customer that loves that a great new spot opened in the area. Zari had finished eating and was signing her check by the time we started talking, but she and I both joined Rose’s table. I suddenly had two delightful dining partners, but also, a chance to try two more dishes that Rose had ordered, and to share the bounty of my order.
I sampled the Cucumber and Fungus Salad ($4.99), a cold side dish made of cubed cucumber and wood ear mushrooms. This is a winning combination — both ingredients have a delightful crunch, but in different ways — the cucumber, crisp and juicy; the mushrooms, slightly chewy, slightly gelatinous, but with a crunchy texture, like jellyfish. The salad was refreshing and flavorful, with a light taste of sesame oil. I found out later Rose had asked the chef to omit garlic from her dish, so I will have to go back to try it again for the full experience.
The Shredded Potato Salad ($4.99) is also a cold dish. I ordered it because Nosh contributor Ben Seto had mentioned a version of it in his review of Huangcheng Noodle House that sounded like something I needed to try. I was not disappointed with my choice. The thinly julienned potatoes were blanched, so they were still crunchy as if raw, and mixed with thin strips of carrot and celery, all coated in a flavorful vinegar-sesame oil marinade that was sour and tangy. Although the salad’s red-tinged hue might scare some spice-averse diners, the chili in it isn’t intense at all, imparting flavor more than zing. What is intense is the garlic, in a good way, but you’ll be tasting its potency for hours after your meal. The cilantro leaves, which may seem like a garnish, actually tie the whole dish together, so be sure to incorporate them in.
But of course, the dumplings are what brought me here, so I was glad to taste two versions at once.
The Napa Cabbage and Pork Dumplings ($7.99) came to the table piping hot. If you’re expecting delicate Laobian-style skins at New Dumpling, you’re at the wrong place. The dough has more heft, and they are folded in a more rustic, rather than refined, style — no fancy crimping here. But, the jiaozi have a pleasing chewy texture that Tan says is from boiling, rather than steaming, them. For those familiar with the texture and shape of the dumplings from Oakland’s Shan Dong Restaurant, New Dumpling’s are of that ilk, but less doughy. The pork was tender, and as Rose noticed, looser than many meat dumplings that traditionally cook into a sausage-like denseness. The Napa cabbage was subtle in both flavor and texture, melding in with the pork. I dipped my dumplings in a combination of soy sauce and vinegar, and a dab of chili garlic sauce for some heat.
Rose had ordered the Zucchini & Egg with Shrimp Dumplings ($8.99). These were stuffed with softly scrambled eggs and shredded zucchini, flavors that played together well. I enjoyed the slight sweetness from the zucchini, and the lightness of the two ingredients combined. When I mentioned to Meng that I never had seen this kind of dumpling before, he said it was invented by his wife. Later in the meal, when Tan was standing in the open kitchen, rolling out skins to fill an order of Tomato & Egg Dumplings ($8.99), she said she enjoyed creating new flavor combinations because in China you can get an endless variety of fillings.
With such a flair for cooking, you might expect Tan had been a professional chef at some time, but before opening New Dumpling, she was a dental assistant. Meng was an aircraft mechanic, working for United and Delta. The couple, who live nearby in Richmond, decided to open the restaurant because Meng started experiencing hearing problems and was searching for a new profession in a less noisy environment.
The servings are generous and meant to be shared, so many diners will likely have leftovers to take home. Meng says leftover dumplings can be pan-fried. That sounds like a great idea, but as we cleared every last dumpling, cucumber and potato shred from our plates, in this case, it was not necessary.
New Dumpling is open for lunch and dinner, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 5-8:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday; closed on Monday.