No, not really the Yeti but the elusive perfect soup dumpling…
I can almost hear Leonard Nimoy’s voice in my ear narrating as I venture forth on my quest.
I heard tell that there was real hole in the wall in the inner Sunset that had good soup dumplings. When I heard I had a chance to lunch with a dear friend while her company was on haitus we quickly nailed down a date and rendevouzed at the metro stop at Market Street.
We hopped on the N Judah to the inner sunset and danced between raindrops to find the King of Noodles. In what must have been a converted garage space, this little restaurant is unassuming and yet immaculate with amazing scents wafting from the tiny kitchen.
We claimed the last table and examined the menu and the specials. We knew that soup dumplings were the main thing but there were so many other intriguing dishes listed, and *so cheap*!
First up, I wanted to try the pan fried soup dumplings, and the beef chow fun with XO sauce. E__ wanted garlic chive pancakes and shrimp and pork wonton soup. We both were excited about shrimp and garlic chive dumplings and very curious what salt and pepper tofu was but the potential quantity of food was getting a bit excessive, even at these prices.
After a bit of a wait we ordered and sadly they were out of pan fried soup dumplings. E___ pinch hit by ordering the salt and pepper tofu instead, and everything else we discussed getting, rationalizing that the leftovers would be great. They were, and the salt and pepper tofu turned out to be the surprise hit of the day.
Soft squares of tofu crisply fried and dusted with Sichuan peppercorns, salt and perhaps a little sugar, they were all at once crunchy, chewy, squishy, salty and spicy. Ever movie theater and sports complex should sell these and they would outsell popcorn in a heartbeat.
The focus of the day, however, was soup dumplings and I was most anxious to try them. From what I had heard and what captivated me was the thought of a tasty dumpling filling surrounded by a pocket of savory soup *inside* a sealed dumpling. Magic, you say? Conceptually it is easy. The usual dumpling dough, rolled out and encasing a ground filling with chicken or pork or both, aromatics like ginger and garlic and seasoned with soy or what have you. Then the magic, a large spoonful of jellied aspic or chicken stock reduced until it forms a jelly when chilled. When the dumpling is steamed, the aspic liquifies and becomes amazing soup inside the plump dumpling. Doesn’t that sound fantastic? Imagine a bite of this, bursting in your mouth, the flavors pooling on your tongue, the sensation of hot soup, tender but toothsome meat, slighly chewy noodle, ahhh. Food porn.
The execution of a successful soup dumpling is another matter. I have heard soup dumpling horror stories: burst, dry dumplings, soggy dumplings or tough thick noodle casings that defy chewing. But thanks to my pals on Twitter I have compiled quite a list of places in the Bay Area that have rocking soup dumplings and the King of Noodles was high on the list.
Our ordered arrived. Six plump dumplings were nestled atop leaves of Napa cabbage, steam still swirling up from inside the bamboo basket. Little ramekins of red vinegar diluted with soy and shreds of tiny juilienned ginger floating around were delivered with soup spoons. With the same care given to a game of Operation, we plucked up a dumpling with our chopsticks and deposited into the soup spoons. Carefully now, we nibbled a tiny corner off of the tender noodle casing. Puffs of steam blew sweetly in our faces and we discretely slurped out the hot soup, trying to balance our greediness to eat with the danger of incinerating our tongues with boiling hot soup. Then, a quick bath in the dipping sauce, we ravished the dumpling in great chomps. It was divine, all I had hoped and dreamed of, and I had two more dumplings left to consume! Totally addicted, I dreamed of daily visits to this dumpling heaven, becoming a regular, miraculously learning Mandarin by osmosis, eating every item on the menu, slowly gaining the trust of the staff and chef, and then finally allowed into the kitchen to learn the secrets of their dough, filling, aspic and construction methods. Well, perhaps not, but a gal has to dream after all.
We turned our attention to the garlic chive pancakes. Pancakes in the Chinese cuisine have as many variations as the dialects in China itself but this pancake was of a configuration unlike any we had seen before. And trust me, living in San Francisco, we both have eaten tons of amazing Chinese food. These pancakes were almost quesadilla-like, without the cheese of course, folded over to incase a hearty filling of chopped garlic chives, minced ginger, dried shrimp, and silver noodles. They were amazing, delectable, and it was hard not to fight over the last one. I was getting full at this point and we hadn’t even tackled the other three dishes!
Onward then, we plunged onto the wonton soup and the shrimp dumplings. The filling in all three dumpling products we ordered were distinctly different, and each were fantastic. The shrimp and green garlic chive dumplings were almost sui mai in texture but shaped like a traditional dumpling. A succulent curl of fat pink shrimp was cuddled by a robe of garlic chives and seasonings that were perfect as-is, no dipping sauce, no hot sauce, just naked. But the King of Noodles makes their own chile paste that is as fiery as Vesuvius and, after one recovers from the lip numbing heat, the sweet chile and pops of garlic enhanced both the dumplings and the chive pancakes. Suddenly, it was very warm in there and in a vain attempt to dilute the chile we swirled perfect jasmine tea around our mouths, exhaling vast clouds of steam like the Hogwarts Express.
The wonton soup was excellent. Playing mother, E__ ladled out a petite bowl of steaming soup, lighter in taste than what is inside the soup dumpling, but rich with perfect dots of golden chicken fat glistening on the surface. The wontons were pork filled and tender and luscious. I love how silky the noodle casing became in the soup and they just slithered down our throats. To our surprise, the large tureen was also filled with fat coiled rice noodles, thick slices of shitake, and halved baby bok chow. I have always wondered how on earth anyone is expected to eat these crisp-tender greens, too big for the spoon, too drippy for chopsticks and frankly so slippery between the plastic tools it was almost impossible to even get it near ones mouth. But we managed, flipping droplets of broth all over the table and each other, as if we were standing on the bow of a Red & White ferry on the bay during a typical small craft warning.
I must interject at this point to say that E__ and I are true ladies, gentile and well versed in the feminine arts, as well as our professional accomplishments and a strong passion for the Giants. But no lady, not even the bluest of the bluebloods could deftly manage the trickery of baby bok choy in broth without some collateral damage.
We took turns between the various dishes spread across out table, serving each other courteously like Chip and Dale, glancing longingly to the XO noodles and knowing we couldn’t even manage a bite.
They were happily packed for home along with shameful amounts of everything but the pancakes and the soup dumplings, long since scarfed down. Alas, we abandoned the remainder of the soup to the busboy’s attentions. We did not, however, leave behind a single cube of tofu, which upon reheating later was still as divine despite the departure of its former crispness.
After paying the exceedingly modest bill for our bounty, we strolled back to the train stop and headed our way to our respective homes. I don’t know about my friend, but I promptly took a deep and satisfying nap. Food coma!
The XO noodles were incredible, even the next day. My stomach growls at the thought of them even now.
King of Noodles
1639 Irving Street
(between 17th Ave & 18th Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94122
My rating: 6 out of 6 dumplings!!
I look forward to visiting the next dumpling place on my list, would perhaps you like to join me?