(Tribune photo by Michael Tercha)
By Phil Vettel
Tribune restaurant critic
Published January 26, 2006
Finding an acceptable pot sticker in this town is easy. Finding a great one takes a little roadwork.
That's the principal lesson of At Play's most recent food odyssey, in which I and three other Chicago Tribune staffers--a Pot Sticker Posse, if you will--spent two days driving around Chicago looking for fried-dumpling excellence.
Why pot stickers? We like them, for one thing. You can get them just about anywhere. And for a humble nibble, a good pot sticker has a lot going for it--a blend of pork and cabbage with aromatic spices, sealed in a half-moon of soft, steamed dough and pan-fried just long enough to crisp up the bottom. Plus, the Lunar New Year kicks off this weekend (for events, see Planner on page 3).
The posse consisted of Tribune food and wine reporter Bill Daley (if you missed his Good Eating story on Chinese dumplings--and shame on you--you can read it at chicagotribune.com/ food); reporter and ethnic adventurer Monica Eng, who will eat absolutely anything; and reporter and Hong Kong native Kevin Pang, whose father is in the restaurant-supply business.
And me. I own a mini-van.
Armed with a list of nominees, we set out for two afternoons of dumpling diving. We did all our eating in the post-lunch-rush afternoon, to keep the playing field as even as possible. We kept track of the prices (there are some good bargains out there) and even measured each dumpling to see if there were significant size differences (there weren't).
Our modus operandi was consistent. We would call in an order and time our arrival so that we were ready when the pot stickers were. We would eat in the car, argue the various merits and demerits, then call the next restaurant on the list.
We evaluated taste, texture and seasonings and combined them all into a single dumpling score ranging from 1 to 4, 1 meaning "Why Bother?" and 4 indicating "Don't Miss It!"
We traveled north and south, and not terribly far west. And here's what we found:
2237 S. Wentworth Ave., 312-842-7500.
Boy, did we love the pot stickers at this Chinatown veteran. The plump dumplings (6 for $3.95, a real bargain) had that classic crescent shape, good flavor and "an al dente elasticity to its bite," according to Pang. The wrapper was dense but, to me, "not overchewy." "Plenty of green onion in the filling," praised Eng. This was the posse's unanimous choice for the best pot sticker in our survey.
1114 W. Armitage Ave., 773-477-1500
The most balanced dumplings, flavor-wise, were at this Lincoln Park spot. The pot stickers (6 for $5.75) were "ripe with sweet porky goodness," in Daley's estimation, while Pang praised the "nice peppery taste" but griped that "the wrapper wasn't crisp enough." I liked the water chestnuts in the filling.
2511 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-883-9797
Jade East offers pork or chicken pot stickers (6 for $4.50). Daley called the pork version "gutsier and tastier," but Eng countered "I like the chicken ones a lot." The dough was thickish ("too thick for my tastes," offered Pang), but pleasing to the teeth. "Not a lot of greens in the filling," said Eng, "but it's a good, coarse meat filling." The golden-brown color was accompanied by minimal crispiness. Why our order came with one single complimentary crab Rangoon is anybody's guess, but a bonus is a bonus.
2131 S. Archer Ave., 312-328-0848
Thin, near-translucent wrappers on these pot stickers (a pricey 3 for $3.25) reminded us of Japanese gyozas--which made the delicate crunch of the fried parts (browned on two sides) much more dramatic in contrast. Inside, the mix of pork, shrimp and vegetables was chunky and coarsely textured, "and the sweetness of the shrimp and cabbage really comes through," added Pang. We liked the paper doilies on the bottom of the polystyrene container; they added a bit of refinement and soaked up some of excess oil that marred these dumplings somewhat.
5511 N. Broadway, 773-728-5778
"Nice pleats," said Daley of Mei Shung's plump dumplings (6 for $3.25), classic crescents stuffed with a compact hunk of pork that had some seasoning (hints of ginger, scallion) but could have used a smidge more. The thick dough was a bit chewy but the dumplings were still semi-crisp despite confinement in an unvented polystyrene container. "They looked expertly fried," said Pang. Add a bit more seasoning and crispness and you might have a winner.
4936 N. Broadway, 773-271-1161
The pork in these dumplings (4 for $2.85) had a pleasant creamy texture, attributable to a greater-than-average amount of fat. The dumplings were very brown, almost scorched; there was almost no crispness, suggesting they had been held in a moist environment after frying, or possibly reheated. Our double order had been crammed into a single take-out container, not a pleasant sight.
3124 N. Broadway, 773-404-1600
On texture alone, these pot stickers (6 for $4.50) would be a hit, but the posse found the filling "distractingly salty" (Daley's words) and a "pepper taste that was a bit annoying" (Pang's), though Eng found the flavor "robust." But we all liked the crunchy, crisped edges. "I would have liked a bit more pork flavor," griped Pang, who also burned his tongue on the piping-hot dumplings.
1246 N. Wells St., 312-943-9300
The posse didn't have much good to say about these pot stickers (7 for $4.45). The texture was deemed "just OK" by Daley and "flavorless" by me and others--though Eng opined that a "vinegary dipping sauce" would perk them up. And if China Doll's pot stickers ever come in contact with a fry pan and oil, you couldn't prove it by our colorless samples--"a lame attempt," said Eng. Pang delivered the coup de grace: "Bland, soul-less dumplings that look like they came straight from the freezer."
Ed's Pot Sticker House
3139 S. Halsted St., 312-326-6898
The posse wasn't quite sure what to make of the house special pot stickers (6 for $5.95), odd and extruded shapes that looked more like meat-filled breadsticks than pot stickers. (I dubbed them "pot fingers" for their finger-food friendliness.) Shape, schmape; what bothered us was the filling, which was bland and had a dense, processed texture. "For a place whose namesake is `pot sticker,' I'm not knocked out," complained Eng. "Nice crisp tubes," allowed Pang, "and sizzling hot when we got them." "The funky shape is no excuse for filling that needs seasoning badly," summed up Daley.
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Pot sticker packaging gets us all steamed up
One of the interesting dilemmas of carryout pot sticker orders is: How do you best package them?
Most of the restaurants we visited packed the pot stickers into hinged polystyrene containers--the default doggie-bag setting. Pot stickers did all right in these boxes, but hot dumplings plus insulated container equals condensation, which can quickly turn the crispiest pot sticker into a soggy disappointment. We countered that effect by trying to arrive at each restaurant a minute or two before our order was ready, but found condensation even so.
Ed's Pot Sticker house, which packaged its unusual, breadstick-shaped pot stickers into a container designed for hot dogs, was the only restaurant clever enough to poke a couple of holes into the container lid, allowing steam to escape.
And what of the traditional, multifold, Chinese take-out containers? They're great for preventing leaks and locking in heat, but that's bad for pot stickers. Won Kow uses these containers, but, perhaps because of the dumplings' thick dough--and because we ate them within a minute of paying for them--the pot stickers didn't suffer unduly. The dumplings at Furama fared worse, particularly because two orders of pot stickers had been crammed into a single container. The ones on the bottom weren't just soggy; they were also smushed.
So which is the best way to package pot stickers to go? Those ugly polystyrene boxes are best, especially with a few hole punches to allow steam to escape. Of course, that allows heat to escape as well, so hurry home.
Tell us where to find your favorite pot sticker. And what makes a perfect one? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Pot Sticker" in the subject field or send to Chicago Tribune, At Play, Pot Stickers, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL 60611.
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