The San Gabriel Valley (“The 626″ if you’re under thirty, “The Chinese Beverly Hills” if you’re over forty) is ideal ground for a dumpling crawl. The cities that sprawl eastward from downtown L.A. along the 10 freeway—Alhambra, Monterey Park, San Gabriel, Rosemead, Arcadia—are all dumpling rich.
Now before we go any further, I should mention that dumplings are an exercise in patience. At the best places, the stuffing, crimping, frying, and steaming don’t even begin to happen until after you’ve sat down, gotten your tea, perused the menu, and flagged down the waiter. Good dumplings take time.
But don’t let that discourage you. With four people, one car, and four hours there is an epic day of dumpling eating to be had. I can’t guarantee you’ll be feeling sprightly when it’s all over, but that’s what naps are for.
Here’s the game plan.
1. Find three friends to join you, because four is the perfect number for this crawl.
2. Assign a navigator. You’ll want this person to be looking up directions to the next dumplings as you finish eating your current dumplings.
3. Bring cash. Credit cards are not always accepted.
4. Go on a weekday if you can. Weekend crowds will muck up all the timing.
My best dumpling recommendation is listed for each of the below destinations. Where applicable, I’ve also noted a solid alternative order. Feel free to mix and match, replace pan-fried with boiled, or drop places entirely.
10:40 a.m.: ELITE RESTAURANT
Address: 700 South Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park. (626) 282-9998
What to Order: #2 Pork Siu Mai ($3.98), #1 Crystal Shrimp Har Gow ($3.98)
Ask for the best dim sum in L.A. and you’ll likely get one of three responses: Elite, Lunasia, or Sea Harbour Seafood. A lot of the best dumpling houses don’t open until 11 a.m., so it’s pointless to start much earlier than 10:30. In a perfect world, maybe you’d hit up Elite for their insanely plump, crab roe-topped pork-and-shrimp siu mai, and then get your har gow fix at Lunasia—but that’s for another day.
Sadly, none of the best dim sum places in L.A. have carts anymore, but that just makes things more efficient for us. Place a check mark next to the requisite siu mai and har gow and quickly wave down somebody to take your ticket.
11:06 a.m.: Qing Dao Bread Food
Address: 301 N. Garfield Ave (Suite G), Monterey Park. (626) 312-6978
What to Order: #9 Pan Fried Pork Dumplings with Leeks & Shrimp ($6.95)
Alternate Order: #1 Boiled Lamb Dumplings ($6.95)
Closed on Tuesdays
Stop number two is the smallest dumpling shop on the list, one that feels even more cramped thanks to the humongous freezer full of bagged dumplings that sits just inside the door. If you like bao but find them a bit too bready and un-dumpling-like, you’ll love the pan-fried, pork-stuffed jiaozi/baozi (potsticker/bun) hybrid they specialize in, which has a wrapper made of bun dough that’s thin enough to make it feel like a potsticker. And make sure you order the #9 (Pan Fried Pork Dumplings with Leeks & Shrimp), not the #6 (Pork with Leeks & Shrimp—Fried), or you’ll end up with just regular ol’ potstickers. Warning: use their house-made garlic sauce at your own risk.
11:30 a.m.: Beijing Pie House
Address: 846 East Garvey Ave, Monterey Park. (626) 288-3818
What to Order: #1 Summer Squash & Lamb “Pie” ($7.99) or #2 Lamb & Green Onion “Pie” ($7.99)
Closed on Mondays
The hockey puck-sized lamb “pies” known as xian bing are what you’ll find at stop number three. These innocent-seeming specialties of northern China don’t look like they’re hiding scalding-hot lamb broth inside, but they are. They also don’t look like something you should set on a spoon to eat, like a regular soup dumpling, but you should. Don’t worry too much over whether to order the lamb and zucchini or the lamb and green onion; they’re both exceptional.
12:07 a.m.: Wang Xing Ji (aka Juicy Dumpling)
Address: 140 West Valley Blvd, San Gabriel. (626) 307-1188
What to Order: #12 Juicy Pork & Crab Dumplings ($10.25)
Alternate Order: #11 Juicy Crab & Pork Bun ($6.65)
The parking lot of the mall at San Gabriel Square feels like the week before Christmas pretty much every day of the year, so save time by heading right to the underground lot, and then walk up the stairs to the second floor (the exercise will be welcome at this point). You’ll find the small entrance for “Juicy Dumpling” just to the right of the much larger Shanghai Restaurant. Wang Xing Ji is famous among Jonathan Gold fans as that place with a steamed dumpling so large you have to drink the soup using a straw, but what you really want are the Wuxi-style juicy pork and crab dumplings with the sweet neon yellow broth. (Wuxi cuisine is both sweet and sweeeeeet.) Of course, as long as you’re here, you should probably get the crab-and-pork bun monstrosity as well.
12:30 p.m.: Flavor Garden
Address: 1269 East Valley Blvd, Alhambra. (626) 284-3549
What to Order: #32 Chinese Leek “Pancake” ($7.50)
Alternate Order: #3 Shrimp, Pork, & Sea Cucumber Dumplings ($7.00)
This is the midway point of the crawl, and it’s here that your patience will really be put to the test. But you’re not going to want to miss out on the pan-fried leek, egg, and glass-noodle stuffed dumplings, inexplicably listed as “pancakes.” I refuse to drop this place from my list, but next time I might go with the boiled pork, shrimp, and sea cucumber dumplings instead.
12:58 p.m.: Chengdu Taste
Address: 828 West Valley Blvd, Alhambra. (626) 588-2284
This crawl would not be a dumpling crawl without some wontons in chili oil, so next swing by SoCal’s best Sichuan restaurant. If by some miracle there isn’t a crowd of people waiting to get in… oh who am I kidding? There’s always a wait. Keep driving, friend. You don’t have time to wait at this place.
1:10 p.m.: Luscious Dumpling
Address: 704 West Las Tunas Dr #4, San Gabriel. (626) 282-8695
What to Order: Chive, Pork, Egg, & Shrimp ($7.50)
Alternate Order: Napa, Pork, and Fish (fried) ($7)
Closed on Mondays
Hui Tou Xiang
Address: 704 West Las Tunas Dr #5, San Gabriel. (626) 281-9888
What to Order: #1 Pork Hui Tou or #2 Beef Hui Tou ($6.95)
Address: 800 W. Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel. (626) 281-2777
What to Order: Pan Fried Pork Bun (Sheng Jian Bao) ($3.99)
Make it to this trifecta by 1:15 p.m., and you’re golden. There’s always a wait at Luscious Dumpling, and they close at 2 p.m., so grab a “number”—it’ll be on the top of the order form the guy gives you—and find out how long it’s going to be. If it’s more than fifteen minutes, head next door to Hui Tou Xiang for an order of their pork or beef hui tou. These rectangular potstickers might look like blintzes, but the stuffing tastes like the dumpling innards from the best New York-style wonton soup you’ve ever had.
The first person who finishes their two pan-fried dumplintzes gets to run over to Emperor Noodles and pick up a to-go order of their pan-fried sesame seed-studded pork buns. By then it should be time to sit down at Luscious Dumplings, where the waiter will likely try to push you toward their pan-fried dumplings. But don’t be fooled—the steamed dumplings are the real star of this place. (It also helps that by now you’ll probably feel like you’re going to die if you eat another pan-fried dumpling ever again. If not, feel free to throw an order of their pan-fried fish dumplings onto your order. YOLO, right?)
By the time those are gone, the scalding hot buns from Emperor Noodles should be cooled down and ready to eat on your way to the final stop.
2:15 p.m.: Din Tai Fung
Address: 1108 S. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia. (626) 574-7068
What to Order: Xiao Long Bao ($8.50)
You made it! And the best part is that at this time there should be little to no wait at the most popular soup-dumpling place in the country. The pork or pork-and-crab xiao long bao from this popular Taiwanese chain are the industry standard, if you can still manage to eat another dumpling.