Jiaozi! dumpling house is part of the next generation of Chinese restaurants—literally. It opened in February, replacing an older Cantonese kitchen whose food was once described, in a 2007 review, as "just a shade better than a Hong Kong prison." The exterior, wedged between two massage parlors on Eighth Avenue South, doesn't immediately appeal, but the cozy hideaway inside more than compensates with cheerful walls, hungry crowds, and authentic recipes from grandma's kitchen.
"Dumplings, or jiaozi, are a common dish with a long history," says owner Elaine Song, describing a national favorite almost as old as China itself. According to legend, dumplings date back more than 1,800 years, when a Han dynasty–era herbal doctor concocted a medicinal broth to warm the masses during China's freezing winter months. Bobbing inside were parcels of meat-stuffed dough, which initially came to be known as "jiao er," or "tender ears," for their crescent shape and storied ability to stave off frostbite.
Centuries later, jiaozi are still consumed around China (and Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, for that matter) and not just in the winter. They're eaten year-round for breakfast, lunch, or dinner—boiled, steamed, or fried, served as entrées or snacks, for regular dinners and for festivals. Just about anything—from pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, mutton, and all manners of vegetable—can go inside. In Beijing, where Song is from, families also incorporate a lucky coin to commemorate Chinese New Year.
Cooking jiaozi is simple, says Song. Basically, you boil water, add dumplings, and then wait for them to float, which is how you know they're ready to eat. The hard work lies in making the stuffing and the dough. "The dough cannot be too thin or too thick, because it affects the taste of the jiaozi," she says.
It takes technique and practice. The minced stuffing demands a balancing act, requiring an exacting ratio of sauces, herbs, spices, and fresh ingredients, including meats marinated in nine types of traditional Chinese sauces, and then bound together with a homemade oil featuring 22 types of herbs and spices. Such strict preparations, Song says, contribute to the dumplings' delicious taste.
Regardless, this medley of flavors allows for a delightfully diverse menu at Jiaozi!, with most dishes ranging from $10 to $15. A house favorite is the lamb and carrot jiaozi, 12 juicy morsels of minced lamb mixed with carrot and cumin, a dumpling some consider North China's answer to Shanghai's famed xiaolongbao.
Other jiaozi offer varying takes on pork—easily China's favorite meat—mixed here with pickled cabbage, chives, dill, or diced long beans, served boiled or lightly pan-fried, with soy sauce, vinegar, and chili oil on the table for dipping.
The dumpling house doesn't limit itself to its namesake dish. There are also stuffed buns, soups, savory stuffed pancakes, and thick handmade noodles, which may lack Din Tai Fung's signature presentation but offer equally complex flavors.
I especially liked the vinegary "Peking style" noodles with meat sauce and the handmade noodles seared with red oil, a vegetarian option that makes up for any perceived protein deficiencies with a hefty dose of spice. The savory menu seems tailor-made for drinking beer, and the staff assured us their pending liquor license should be arriving soon.