By Vickie Lewis
It’s a new year, and most of us are making resolutions to make changes in our lives or to boldly try new experiences that will broaden our horizons. If you are among those yearning for new culinary experiences to start your new year, you must make time to visit New Dumpling in El Cerrito.
New Dumpling is a small, family-owned Chinese restaurant located in the heart of El Cerrito on San Pablo Avenue near Central Avenue. It is adjacent to the Rialto Theater and nestled among other small businesses that thrive in this busy downtown area. It opened in the spring of 2019 and has amassed a huge following of customers in the months that have ensued. An article about New Dumpling. published in Berkleyside (an independent news site in Berkeley) within weeks of its opening, enticed its readers to try the new restaurant and experience the unique cuisine offered there. Word spread quickly and soon New Dumpling was teeming with business!
As the name implies, New Dumpling features a variety of homemade Chinese dumplings, which comprise most of its relatively limited menu. Dumplings, also known as jiaozi, are crescent-shaped dough, filled with minced stuffing which can be boiled, steamed, or fried. There are several side dishes and soups also offered at New Dumpling; however, you won’t find some of your traditional Chinese favorites , such as Chow Mein, Sweet and Sour Pork, or Kung Pao Chicken here. Restaurant owners Alex Meng, his wife, Gloria Tan, and Meng’s mother, are originally from Shenyang, China, which is home to a popular restaurant chain, Laobian Dumpling, popular for its huge variety of flavorful jiaozi. This was likely the inspiration for launching New Dumpling last April. In China, dumplings are among the most popular of cuisines, and are especially popular during the Chinese New Year season. They are considered to symbolize longevity and wealth.
My guest and I visited New Dumpling for Saturday lunch between 11:30 and noon. We were fortunate to find parking on the street in front of the restaurant, although this may, at times, be challenging, due to the many businesses on the same block. When we entered the restaurant, there were already several tables of customers enjoying their meals. We were promptly greeted and seated, and provided water, menus, chopsticks, utensils, and napkins. The menu is a one-page laminated sheet, listing available side dishes on the left side, and listing the varieties of available dumplings on the right. A white board hanging near our seat also listed several daily specials to supplement the menu.
Not having done any research on New Dumpling in advance, I didn’t realize that the menu was limited to dumplings and side dishes. There were ten varieties of dumplings to choose from, each prepared with one or two proteins (shrimp, pork, beef, chicken, egg) and vegetables (chives, cabbage, celery, carrots, green peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, corn). All were priced at $7.99 or $8.99, and our server informed us that each portion included fourteen dumplings, but no accompaniments. My guest chose the Green Peppers with Pork dumplings and I chose the Carrots with Beef. We also decided to order a side dish to accompany the dumplings. The sides included seven different types of cold salads, including interesting choices such as Shredded Pig Ear Salad, Shredded Seaweed Salad, and Bean Curd Strips Salad. Not feeling adventurous enough to select one of the more unconventional dishes, we opted for the Shredded Potato Salad, which our server assured us was a suitable size for sharing. All salads were $4.99 except for the Shredded Pig Ear Salad and Marinated Beef, which were listed at $6.99. The menu also included an appetizer, a Green Onion Pancake, for $5.99, and Beef Noodle Soup for $10.49. Specials for the day were Wonton Soup for $9.99, and an additional dumpling choice, Vegetarian dumplings, made with carrots, cabbage, celery, tofu, and fungus.
As we waited for our food, we had the opportunity view the kitchen staff who were hard at work in the open kitchen. Very near where we were sitting, separated only by a clear glass divider, a female employee sat in the kitchen hand-wrapping dumplings individually at a very fast pace. She was very adept at scooping just the right amount of the meat/vegetable mix into thin circles of previously hand-rolled dough. After filling the wraps with the mixture, she expertly folded the dough over, pinching the edges closed to seal in the contents. As each tray was filled, it was covered with cellophane, but the dumplings were in such demand that they seemed to almost go faster than she could wrap them! My guest and I enjoyed watching the dumplings being hand-wrapped but were somewhat surprised that the employee did not wear gloves during the process.
The shredded potato salad arrived at our table shortly after we’d placed our order. Even though the menu clearly said “shredded” potato salad, I think we both subconsciously expected a dish that looked more like traditional American potato salad. Instead, the salad appeared to be mixed long, thin strips of raw potatoes, carrots, and onions, topped with sprigs of cilantro, and coated in a strong-tasting vinegar-sesame and chili oil. I found the taste to be somewhat spicy, and very potent. After a couple of bites, I sipped a drink of water, and my mouth felt a bit numb due to the taste of the salad. The cilantro, which initially appeared to be garnish, enhanced and quelled the intensity of the salad’s flavor. Partaking of the salad was an interesting experience for both of us, but we were unable to finish the entire portion.
The green bell pepper with pork dumplings were served next. The dumplings resembled pot stickers, but they were not browned on one side; instead they were completely white, soft, and pillowy. New Dumpling boils its dumplings and does not offer the option to pan fry them. Our dumplings were served piping hot, and each was plump with the meat and vegetable filling. On the table, there were bottles of soy sauce, vinegar and chili sauce to use as dumpling dipping sauces. We each had small bowls in which to mix our sauces, which allowed us to dip the savory puffs easily. We both opted to mix a little of all three sauces together and found this combination to be very flavorful. was delivered to the table. Once again, they were served piping hot, and were equally as plump and soft as the others. We both sampled one of the carrots with beef dumplings and immediately acknowledged that, while they were very good, we liked the green pepper with pork dumplings better. The carrot and beef combination did not have as much seasoning and tasted a bit bland. The bits of carrots seemed to give the dumplings a sweet flavor, which was not as appealing as the spiciness in the pork. Still, we eagerly indulged in both orders of dumplings until we felt extremely full. We asked for a “to go” box to take home the half dozen dumplings that remained.
While we were dining, New Dumpling, which can accommodate 24 seated guests, had maxed out their seating area and had additional patrons waiting in their overflow areas. Based on reading customer reviews, there is often a wait of up to 30 minutes at this small, but popular restaurant--a testament to the quality of the food served.
The guests that were seated closest to us ordered a variety of items to share, including a bowl of the Beef Noodle Soup, the Shredded Pig Ear salad, dumplings, Cucumber and Fungus Salad, and the Green Onion Pancake. The presentation of each item was very nice, and the generous sized portions covered most of their dining table. Despite our fullness, my guest and I salivated when we saw our neighbors’ Green Onion Pancake, so we ordered one for ourselves. The order arrived quickly, and the pancake had been cut into quarters and layered on an oval plate. We received six quarters of crispy golden fried green onion pancake appetizer. My guest and I agreed that it would have been better to have enjoyed the pancake as a complement to the shredded potato salad. Although the taste of green onion was very subtle, we savored the crispy flakiness of the pancake, and only added one quarter to the dumplings in our “to go” box!
In retrospect, it would have been nice to have had the option to order a sampler plate so that we could have tried more than just two of the dumpling varieties. However, based on the savoriness of the varieties we ordered, there is every reason to believe that the other dumplings on the menu will be equally delicious. Based on reading posted customer reviews, the Napa Cabbage with Pork dumplings are the favorite of many, and the Green Onion Pancake and Beef Noodle soup also get repeat accolades. New Dumpling did not sell alcoholic beverages at the time of this review; however, hot tea and sodas are available, and the daily featured special drink was homemade iced tea lemonade, as the business matures, there may be changes or additions to the New Dumpling food and drink menu items.
The restaurant is clean and modern inside, and the visibility into the open kitchen is a plus. Most of the inside tables accommodate 2 to 4 guests, but tables can be pushed together for larger parties. There are a few outside tables also which will likely be in demand when the weather improves. The atmosphere is casual and homey, perfect for enjoying Chinese comfort food. New Dumpling is the Meng family’s first restaurant, but their popularity and success thus far is an attestation to their excellent execution of the food and their friendly, efficient customer service. On selected days, New Dumpling also sells handmade frozen dumplings that customers can prepare at home, complete with cooking instructions.
As the new year begins, resolve to treat yourself to new experiences! Go places you’ve always wanted to go! Do things you’ve never done before! Remember that you only live once, and you owe it to yourself to live life to its fullest! Be sure to calendar a visit to New Dumpling as one of the new places you’ll want to visit and treat yourself to a new twist on great Chinese food. Happy New Year to All!