I haven’t had good Chinese food since moving from the U.S. Perhaps it does exist in Barcelona and I’m just not looking in the right places, but the delivery menu of restaurants like Jardin de Chen (“Pollo Hong Kong,” “Ensalada China,” “Ternera con Tomate”) scare me off. They all seem to offer only butchered versions of American-Chinese classics (already adapted/bastardized versions of real Chinese dishes) that wouldn’t appeal to me even after a three-day whiskey binge. Having given up on finding authentic Chinese, I actually attempted once around 2 years ago to order the typical selection of hangover-helper American-Chinese favorites from a Chinese spot in Eixample. On that lazy evening I wasn’t in it for the real deal. I wasn’t looking for the fabulous dim sum I had in Hong Kong or the spicy hot pot I struggled with in Shanghai. I was yearning for the American-Chinese (or, I guess, Spanish-American-Chinese) top hits: General Tso’s, crab rangoons, chop suey in white and red takeout boxes, thrown into a paper bag with chopsticks, a plastic fork and a fortune cookie. Comfort food. What arrived to my door were leathery spare ribs, frozen shrimp in a puffy, corn dog jacket of “fried,” and cold, stiff, oily noodles that just made my condition worse. So when my parents suggested dinner at Boston’s beloved Gourmet Dumpling House in Chinatown I leapt at the opportunity to satisfy my craving.
The menu at bustling, pint-sized GDH combines a handful of deep-fried, wok-tossed, saucy and sweet things more fitted to the Western palate with an extensive list of straight-off-the-boat dishes representative of China’s multiple cooking styles. Nearly every table – Chinese, non-Chinese or mix – has on it a large bowl of Szechuan sliced fish soup with an ominously red chili oil (not to mention whole chilis) floating on the surface. Also popular are the braised eggplant and pork entree and scallion pancakes. And, of course, you can’t leave without trying their signature xiao long bao.
The hot and sour soup at Gourmet Dumpling House is what the hot and sour soup at so many dingy late-night Chinese-American holes-in-the-wall aspire to and ultimately fail at being. The broth is often over-seasoned, and so heavy with cornstarch as to stand up like gelatin on a spoon. But when my gourmande of a mother (always opposed to anything unnatural or synthetic) declared it delicious, I knew ordering a bowlful wouldn’t be a bad idea. The soup turned out to be my favorite dish of the night. The broth was packed with flavor, the chicken stock mixed in with rice vinegar (for sour), soy sauce (for depth and umami), sesame oil (for a cozy nutty taste) and chilies (for heat). Some ginger also added a spicy floral kick. Each spoonful brought up mounds of slippery tofu skin, chewy wood ear mushroom, delicate bundles of white enoki mushrooms, rectangular logs of smooth tofu and dried lily buds for a fantastic textural contrast that kept the dish interesting until the last drop. And while the broth did contain a bit of thickener, it was nowhere near the goopy mess I was half-expecting. It was pleasantly smooth and just dense enough.
We also ordered a wonton soup, which came with a very delicate, lightly flavored broth, shredded bits of white meat chicken and some chewy sheets of black mushroom. The wontons themselves were perfectly tender, with a slippery exterior that glided against the tongue and a mushy, dense filling or pork. The broth was also very nice, low in sodium bu packed with poultry essence, perfect for a sore throat on a cold November evening.
The Gourmet Dumpling House is known for their XLB (Xiao Long Bao) soup dumplings, named “Juicy Dumplings” on their menu. The idea is to pick one up with a chopstick, set it in your duck spoon, nibble a hole in the wrapper to allow the soup inside to flow into your spoon, and then continue to eat the crumbly pork filling, wrapper and juice all together. Although the skin was a tiny bit too thick (maybe to prevent xiao long bao newbies from tearing their dumplings), both the broth and the filling were perfectly seasoned.
One must-order appetizer is the dish of chilled silken tofu piled high with toasted peanuts and bonito flakes, served with slices of preserved egg. I had this dish once before in the Shu Yu Sichuan restaurant in the Nanhui suburb of Shanghai and had learnt from that experience to use a spoon to pick up the tofu rather than chopsticks, which break the delicate stuff into pieces. The sinful saltiness and crunch of the peanuts contrasted nicely with the creaminess of the tofu, which added decadence to the meal in much the same way a good fresh cheese can do. The century eggs, once you get past the rather gruesome appearance, taste just like a hard-boiled egg but with a greater depth of flavor. The whites harden and become transparent, while the yolk develops a creamier consistency. This dish combined a range of textures (creamy, gelatinous, flaky, crunchy), making it a pleasure to eat.
Next up, a plate of Chuanbei Liangfen, called “Northern-style chili cold noodles” on the menu. These are chilled jelly noodles made of mung bean starch, topped with a Szechuan chili sauce and crunchy bits of peanut. Some cukes and carrots for extra color. The heat and fermented, funky umami of the sauce provides plenty of flavor to the blank canvas noodles. The dish has great textural intrigue, a combination of gelatinous and smooth with crunchy and fresh. Cold, white shards of jiggly noodle are by no means my definition of comfort food, but I can imagine this dish is fabulous on a hot summer day,
The sizzling pork was a fine entree, cooked with plenty of onion and bell pepper in a thick and glossy sauce of soy and black pepper. The chunks of beef were tender and juicy, having soaked up much of the moisture around them. With its “Western” vegetables and gravy, the dish seemed like something created (or at least adapted) to please the American palate. But, there’s nothing wrong with that. A simple comfort food on a bed of fluffy rice. We also had the the iconic Beijing-style shredded pork with sweet bean sauce and fresh green onion slices sprinkled over the top. The dish was served with dried bean curd sheets, used to wrap the moist pork whose juices spilled out and hydrated each bite nicely. Crafting tight little bundles of steamy, delicious meat just happens to be my favorite type of DIY activity, so I was quite fond of this entree.
As we sipped the rest of our tea, the bill came – a pleasant surprise, considering the amount of dishes (7, with a ton of food left over to take away) and the fantastic quality through and through. I’ve been told the place usually has a considerable wait, so plan to go early and avoid the rush!