I don’t get the existential comfort of kneading bread. I prefer not to eat one bean, let alone a whole hill of them. But when the world as we knew it ended and the coronavirus lockdown began, I developed a soft spot for frozen dumplings.
I steamed two dozen soup dumplings for breakfast. I fried pot stickers for lunch — then boiled a second batch and justified it by telling my conscience it’s all in the name of good health since they aren’t sizzling in vegetable oil.
I’ve eaten 1,000 dumplings during Washington’s stay-home order. And a lot of them were good.
Of all restaurant second acts, Asian restaurants hawking frozen dumplings have been one of the most popular coronavirus-era pivots, a big hit with savvy consumers who realize that pot stickers and soup dumplings sold in Costco-sized bags are some of the best values in comparison to other takeout options and meal kits. Ten cooked dumplings can run about $12 to $16. The bargain hunters know you can get 50 pieces frozen for about $30 and cook them yourself.
Dumplings are versatile; they can be steamed, fried or boiled. The exception are soup dumplings, which require steaming. You can get a steamer for under $40 at Asian supermarkets. They’re a good investment because many Asian restaurants plan to make frozen dumplings a permanent fixture on their to-go menus even when dining rooms reopen at full capacity.
To all those xiao long bao or soup dumpling fanatics, I see you furiously typing away to me — yes, you’re correct, the skin of soup dumplings is more elastic when they are made to order for dine-in consumption. But outside of those dumpling dorks who fetishize how many folded pleats adorn each morsel, most casual consumers won’t notice much of a difference between fresh and frozen. The quality of frozen dumplings has improved in the past two years.
Some tips for newcomers:
If you use a bamboo steamer, make sure it fits within your pot, otherwise your soup dumplings will not cook properly.
Ask for cooking instructions: Most Asian restaurants don’t include directions since their clientele is well versed in how to steam, fry and boil dumplings. Neophytes should not assume. Boiling dumplings, for instance, is not dropping them in hot water like rigatoni — that leaves you with an overcooked, mushy dough and undercooked meat filling. Boiling usually entails waiting for the dumplings to float to the surface and then pouring cold water into the pot to drop the temperature. Repeat this step three to four times, depending on the thickness of the dumpling. Frying dumplings does not mean dropping them in olive oil. You coat the pan in vegetable oil, drop the pot stickers and fill the pan with water and then cover until most of the water evaporates. Then, you lift the lid and brown to finish. Ask. For. Cooking. Instructions.
Social distance your dumplings: They need elbow room to inflate in the pan or steamer, otherwise they will stick to one another.
Tan’s Top 10
Here are my 10 favorite frozen dumpling spots, in no particular order. (Din Tai Fung was not included since the chain has stopped selling frozen dumplings now that their dining rooms have reopened.)
18230 E. Valley Highway, Suite 156, Kent; 253-236-2165; mamadoughkent.com;
Frozen dumpling options are not posted online but all the options on the dinner menu are available frozen at a discount; 20 pork soup dumplings for $15; 10 spicy pork soup dumplings for $15; 40 steamed/fried pork dumplings for $30; 40 lamb or beef dumplings for $35.
The most flavorful filling in our soup dumpling roundup. Even at the apex, where the pleats meet, the skin isn’t so doughy as to overwhelm the delicate broth. Its pork dumplings are popular, but the best in our frozen taste test was Mama Dough’s “spicy” pork soup dumpling, with its fiery, fermented zing. But slurping that umami-rich broth was worth the sting on my lips. These spicy soup dumplings are available in limited quantities. Mama Dough makes the best dumplings in the South End. Located inside the Great Wall Shopping Mall, the restaurant will even deliver (for free) around Seattle and the Eastside for orders of at least $100.
Xiao Chi Jie
278 106th Ave. N.E., Bellevue; 425-598-2184; thexcj.com; delivery/pickup
Fifty pork soup dumplings for $29.95; 50 pork-and-shrimp soup dumplings for $32.95.
This Eastside street-food counter has a cult following for its soup dumplings. The pork tastes leaner than some of the other contenders; splurge $5 for the chili oil and a ginger-caramelized green onion oil sauce to punch up these xiao long bao. The good news: In the near future, XCJ plans to include the sauces with your order. Its pork-and-shrimp seafood version was tastier than all the pork-and-crab dumplings in our taste test.
Six locations in Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond and Issaquah. Make sure you order from the correct location for pickup; delivery/pickup; doughzonedumplinghouse.com.
Pork soup dumplings, 50 pieces for $27; pot stickers are 45 pieces for $27. (Some branches sometimes offer a 10% discount if you place your pickup order by phone.)
Long before the pandemic, this local chain got into bulk sales of its frozen dumplings. These guys are old hands at this game. Every single dumpling comes perfectly symmetrical, a consistent bite. The shell is the most elastic of all frozen soup dumplings I tested, and none of the 50 soupy morsels leaked, a good ratio of dough to meat. Dough Zone also boasts the best pot stickers, the most flavorful filling (pork and shrimp) and a dough that crisps up better than the others in our taste test.
Ping’s Dumpling House
508 S. King St., Seattle; 206-623-6764; facebook.com/PingsDumpling/; pickup only.
Pork or chicken pot stickers are 50 pieces for $25; shrimp pot stickers are 50 pieces for $28.
The devotees who pledge their allegiance to Ping’s xiao long bao will have to wait for its reopening because its frozen version didn’t hold up well in the steamer. Its pork pot stickers are the way to go. When fried, most frozen pot stickers crumble and disintegrate as soon as you chomp. These suckers put up a fight, doughy but with a crunchy skin for an unctuous bite. The pork filling is one of the most distinctive in our taste test — a sweet onion flavor.
Dumpling The Noodle
1719 N. 45th St., Seattle; 206-403-1724; dumplingthenoodle.com; delivery and pickup.
Seven different dumpling options. 50 pieces for $29.95-$34.95.
A promising newcomer that debuted in January, this Chinese restaurant in Wallingford was on the verge of getting a restaurant review from The Seattle Times before the pandemic hit. (Its chili beef lamen noodle was one of the best dishes I had this year. Remember dining out?) Unfortunately, many of the Northern Chinese-style comfort food items here don’t hold up well for takeout. The frozen dumplings are your best bet. These dumplings can be steamed or boiled, but pan-fried produced the best results: a crunchy, brown bottom to contrast with the chewy top, and inside, a snappy bit of shrimp interspersed with the pork-chive meatball, its signature dumpling. Not on the menu, but available upon request: the beef-and-bell-pepper version, one of the most aromatic in our roundup.
Two locations: 23830 Highway 99, Suite 115, Edmonds; 425-678-0806; 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park (located in Third Place Books food court); 206-420-1661; dumplinggeneration.com; pickup only.
Seven different options from $28 to $38 for 40 pieces.
I burned the roof of my mouth from the lava of pork drippings. Let these plump dumplings cool down for five minutes. The pork version tasted as good fried or steamed; the latter gives you a juicier, more pronounced soy sauce taste. These dumplings with fat-boy bellies take three to four minutes longer to cook than the others. The chicken-cabbage dumpling was the only poultry filling that made our top 10 list. With the other contenders, I couldn’t tell if the filling was chicken. Also, they’re not posted on the menu, but you can request vegetarian dumplings filled with tofu, black mushroom, baby bok choy and carrots.
15009 Aurora Ave. N., Shoreline; 206-694-3651; kathmandumomocha.com; delivery/pickup.
Thirty pieces for $25-$30; they also offer gluten-free dumplings (five for $15). Comes with complimentary mild and hot sauces.
Most beef dumplings were a big fail in our taste test — meat mince-y or too lean — this Nepalese food truck solved that problem by adding pepper jack cheese to bind the ground beef, giving it an oozy, salty punch, each morsel robed in a wrapper scented with turmeric and saffron. The 25% fat ground beef (made from top round steak) gave these noshes more flavor than the other contenders. This rogue version is owner Sam Dangol’s homage to the cheeseburger. His vegetarian (spinach, potato, green onions and mozzarella) and vegan (carrot, cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower, green onions, cilantro and chickpeas) dumplings were also richer than most of the nonmeat versions around town. The dumplings can be boiled, but fried or steamed yielded best results.
Little Ting’s Dumplings
14411 Greenwood Ave. N., Seattle; 206-363-3866; littletingsdumplingsseattle.com; takeout only.
Thirteen dumpling options; up to 50 pieces for $26-$30.
The fennel punched up the pork dumplings with a bright anise flavor. The pork-chive version tasted fresh — as if the herbs were pulled out of a planter’s box. Both were the best values in our taste test (50 pieces for $26). They can be boiled or steamed, but frying produced the best results.
Northern Dumpling House
12085 124th Ave. N.E., Kirkland; 206-902-8861; northern-dumpling-house.business.site; pickup and delivery.
Fifty pieces for $25-$30.
Westerners tend to prefer meaty dumplings and treat the shell more as an afterthought. The wrapper here is just as important as what’s on the inside. The skin is firm but elastic, a tad bouncy, like biting into al dente paccheri pasta. Of the four dumpling options, the ground pork with cabbage and bright hit of scallions was the best. These boiled dumplings are substantial enough that a dozen can pass for a full meal. If you don’t like your dumplings so doughy, fry them up for a crispier, less chewy take.
3642 33rd Ave. S., Unit C6, Seattle; 206-257-0235; pickup only; on Facebook.
The frozen dumpling menu is not posted online. Fifty pork dumplings for $30, $35 for 50 beef dumplings and $40 for lamb or shrimp dumplings.
These can be boiled or fried, though steaming is really the only way to go, producing a papery thin, elastic skin, with a higher meat-to-dough ratio than the others. Most lamb dumplings around town get mixed with carrots to add sweetness and smooth out the gamey aftertaste. Here, the brawny carrot bits are thicker to add a crunchy texture. Oh man, University of Washington students, I hate to be bearer of bad news, but Noodle Legend was going to be one of the big Chinese restaurant openings on The Ave this year until the owner pulled out when the pandemic hit. Its commissary kitchen in the Rainier Valley area doubles as its takeout counter.