Mama Dough | Seattle Times Critic’s Pick | ★★★ ½ | Chinese | $ | 18230 E. Valley Highway Suite 156, Kent; 253-236-2165; mamadoughkent.com; Tuesday-Sunday 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; reservations highly recommended
KENT — Around Greater Seattle, fans of soup dumplings throw their loyalties to the flag of either Din Tai Fung or Dough Zone.
May I suggest a third contender? Mama Dough in Kent.
The first reason to favor the place is simply one of logistics: You don’t have to put your name on a waitlist and cross your fingers that you can land a table in under an hour like at those two dumpling chains. Dough Zone doesn’t take reservations. Din Tai Fung’s reservations through a third party is limited. Mama Dough takes reservations.
Mama Dough also makes better pork soup dumplings or xiao long bao. From the first molten bite, I was ready to crown it the best pork soup dumpling I’ve had this year. Subsequent meals at Mama Dough — interspersed with taste tests at the other two soup-dumpling chains — only reinforced that opinion.
Mama Dough sits in the labyrinth that is the Great Wall Shopping Mall, where every turn seems to lead to another noodle house, another banh mi place.
There are only a dozen tables in this generic brown, rectangular room, with one man tasked as the stern traffic controller. He works the entire dining area, taking food orders at a brisk pace with robotic efficiency. He’s not interested in your small talk or meandering questions.
Be ready to order.
The menu and board specials tally up to 100 dishes. You know, the usual, chicken chow mein and shrimp fried rice.
But those are not the reasons for Mama Dough’s existence. The dumplings are — even the less-sexy boiled version.
Those boiled morsels are hand-kneaded, doughy and plump, their skin as pale as an accountant’s at tax season; the fillings are ground pork, beef or lamb, mingled with an assortment of herbs, veggies and seasonings.
The gamy lamb gets tamed with minced carrot to lend it some sweetness. The pork-chive filling tasted so bright, as if the greens were pulled right out of a planter’s box. At $10.99 for a dozen, the boiled pork-chive dumplings are the best deal on the menu.
But we came to talk soup dumplings.
Maybe one day, in the name of science, a lab at MIT can explicate how Din Tai Fung can make its dumpling skin so translucently thin, yet so pliable that the piping hot soup never leaks.
To answer the question on the minds of dumpling fans who fetishize about these things: Mama Dough’s wrapper isn’t as papery thin. But it is elastic enough. Even at the apex where the pleats meet, the skin isn’t so doughy as to overwhelm the delicate broth.
As at most purveyors around the area, the crab-and-pork soup dumplings here are just so-so, the crab stringy and overcooked.
The magic at Mama Dough is in its pork soup dumpling, where all the components steep in perfect harmony. The filling has a tart-pickle flavor to balance the fatty-salty pork and sweet broth. Each morsel is soupy enough to give you the requisite slurp.
No dish is more high maintenance than a soup dumpling. It needs to be made to order. It waits for no one. From the time the dumplings leave the steamer, the clock is ticking. It’s a race against time to devour them before the broth congeals. In the name of quality, it is perfectly acceptable to eat more than your slower companion.
Mama Dough: 18230 E. Valley Highway Suite 156, Kent; 253-236-2165; mamadoughkent.com; Tuesday-Sunday 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Highly recommended for the pork soup dumplings or xiao long bao, along with the roster of boiled dumplings and pancake rolls
Reservations strongly recommended Fridays-Sundays, but still better if you can hit it during off hours or other days to avoid the chaos
Prices: $ (appetizers $3.99-$12.99; dumplings $10.99-$12.99; hot pot, rice and noodle dishes $9.99-$15.25)
Noise level ranges from tranquil on weekdays to moderate during the busy weekend rush; no background music
Service is fast and efficient, though note that soup dumplings are made to order in a space about the size of a telephone booth, so logistically, your dumpling orders can take anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes depending on the backlog.
Drinks: beer, wine and sake
Access: no obstacles, women’s and men’s restrooms, accessible; no stairs; high chairs available