The lack of an inviting interior might be why they do a good trade in take-out business. The first time I went, it was a Sunday at noon during the Lunar New Year. The place was packed — every one of their 30 seats was taken and a line ranged along the sidewalk outside. This is a restaurant that knows how to hustle when they need to. My order was ready in 13 minutes (I timed it). For about $40 we got enough food for four hungry people and had more to spare.
My next visit was on a weekday night. The restaurant wasn't full, but it was well-patronized. Young families came to eat in, a group of techies shared a meal before heading back for a late night at work and several people stopped in to pick up food. We lounged, picking at our food for well over two hours. Reading between the lines, you might say that the service was lackadaisical. Or you might say that it was respectful, honoring our desire to chat. When we did need something, we only needed to raise our hand or catch the eye of the one person serving and tending the register.
i Dumpling has a compact menu that features food aren't often seen on the English-language menu, including marinated pigs ears and sauerkraut pork noodle soup. They also offer Taiwanese-style bento, including one with chicken nuggets and another with stewed pork rice.
Bottom line: The dumplings are great and the other offerings are good to above average.
Let's start with the dumplings, since the restaurant is called i Dumpling. Almost all of their handmade dumplings are served steamed. Generous servings of 12 dumplings per order range from $6.45 to $7.95. The dumpling wrappers were thick and chewy, authentically handmade as advertised.
They are locally famed for their pork dumplings with napa cabbage ($6.45). Two sets of fellow diners recommended these and they were good. Not amazing, but solid. The chicken dumplings with corn ($6.95) were a trifle unusual and amazingly good, with a subtle back-of-throat burn. The lamb dumplings ($7.95) were savory and a sneaker favorite at lunch. We also loved the pork dumplings with cilantro ($7.45), the herb's flavor coming through clean and clear.
The menu features two dishes that sound similar, but are very different — green onion cake ($3.95) and green chives pancake ($7.45). We tried the former at the suggestion of the waiter. I wouldn't recommend it. It didn't feature the typical flaky layers and it tasted a little like the oil in which it had been fried had been used a few times too often.
i Dumpling's entrees, on the other hand, were a pleasure to consume. The kung pao chicken was spicier than expected, but deeply, fundamentally satisfying. The mapo tofu, soft cubes of tofu bathed in a spicy red sauce with a scattering of green onions, was delightful. I recommend you order some rice (the vegetarian fried rice is a solid choice) to go with both these dishes.
On any hot day, you should stop by for one of i Dumpling's cold dishes. The cold wide bean noodles are a melange of cold, half-inch mung bean noodles tossed with a light soy dressing and garnished with slivered cucumbers. The noodles were a little slithery, but oh, so good. The crushed cucumber with garlic is a rustic dish — Persian cucumbers sliced in half lengthwise, then into 2-inch chunks and smashed with the side of a cleaver. A marinade of soy and raw garlic makes the cucumbers succulent and refreshing. I'd take this any day for a light lunch or snack.
Expect to ask for hot tea if you want it. It's not on the menu, nor do they automatically serve it, but it is available. Desserts are nonexistent. But if you are looking for good and very reasonably priced Chinese dumplings and a choice of some other interesting dishes, i Dumpling may well be the place for you. Just not for a first date.
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