The San Francisco location of Dumpling Time added a much needed culinary spark to SoMa’s design district. For at least a decade, the most you could hope for at lunchtime was the familiar combination of a deli sandwich and an iced tea. In 2017, when Dumpling Time opened there to enthusiastic lines of hungry diners, great Thai, Mexican and pizza restaurants also moved in nearby. All of them survived the pandemic slowdown.
Dumpling Time’s instant success was due, in part, to a dim sum menu pared down to suit Californians at lunch. The dough makers are visible, equidistant between the entrance and the kitchen. They knead and shape the dumplings that you’ll soon be popping into your mouth. Their presence communicates a freshness and an immediacy to the meal.
The Omakase Restaurant Group behind the concept removed some of the more obscure dim sum items that waltz by, unnamed, on serving trays in South San Francisco and Daly City. And despite the arrival of the nationally well-reviewed Good to Eat Dumplings in Emeryville, they decided that their formula would also work on Berkeley’s 4th Street.
Stages of Dumpling Time’s corner lot overhaul seemed to take place over an elongated year. Now up and running, the new restaurant stands a few feet away from the emptied Amazon “showroom,” or whatever that useless store was shilling. There’s a sign-in sheet outside the entrance rather than a host or greeter. Once seated, you can ignore the QR code to request a laminated menu, whether you’re a partial or total luddite.
The seating inside looks cramped and crammed with thin, rickety tables. The patio outside has enough square footage for a small party to secure a bit more elbow room. If the San Francisco location was in a competition with Berkeley for outstanding service, they’d currently be in first place. The front of house staff on 4th Street has yet to become an efficient, cohesive machine.
This new location of Dumpling Time feels understaffed and, with one friendly, efficient exception, everyone else appears to be in training. Once you put your order in, a server will deliver the dish and cross the item off the receipt that’s displayed on your tabletop. The system must be confusing. Each time a server brought a dish out from the kitchen, they looked like wayward souls deciphering enigmatic clues whilst on a scavenger hunt.
But once our order of barbecue pork bao (three for $9.50) showed up, the waywardness was out of sight and out of mind. Our server strongly suggested we get our buns seared and not steamed—and she was right. The first taste of those seared bao buns, with tender pieces of pork inside, was confirmation that the Berkeley kitchen was using the same trove of recipes as their San Francisco counterpart.
A bamboo basket filled with vegetable dumplings ($11) is by far the prettiest dish. The menu doesn’t indicate if the green skin is infused with spinach, or simply dyed, but the cooks cover them with flower petals and slices of radish. They were stuffed with greens, carrots, cilantro, mushrooms and egg. The boiled texture though was my least favorite, landing on the mushier side of dim sum.
Chicken gyoza ($11) are crispy and pan-fried. The filling’s a delicious mixture of chicken, mushroom, green onion and cilantro. The spiciest dish was not a dumpling but southeast fried rice noodles ($16). Thick stalks of Chinese broccoli were layered between noodles and strong but not overwhelming hits of chili.
We didn’t try the Maine lobster siu mai ($17), described as open-faced dumplings, the soup dumplings wrapped in a dark magenta beet skin ($12) or the dessert bao ($8.50) steamed in three different colors. Four dishes were more than enough for a table of two.
The food at Good to Eat Dumplings, admittedly, does have a more homey feel. You can sense the personal touch in the space itself, the service and the way in which the food is prepared. At Dumpling Time, there’s a generic blast of someone’s corporate budget aimed directly at the décor, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the dumplings themselves.
Dumpling Time, open Mon to Fri 11am–9pm and Sat to Sun 10am–9pm. 1795 Fourth St., Berkeley. 510.984.0306. dumplingtime.com/berkeley