Pot stickers, dumplings and bao
In February, Julia Zhu and her business partner, Sandy Zheng, opened the third iteration of their San Francisco restaurant chain, United Dumplings. After landing in Rockridge, United has become the third dumpling-focused spot to open in the East Bay since last year.
United Dumplings isn’t a dim sum restaurant, explained Zhu. “Maybe 90% of the Chinese population does not know what dim sum is,” she said. In China, dim sum originated in the province of Canton. Both Zhu and Zheng are from Northern China, where they made one kind of dumpling for the Chinese New Year. Americans, Zhu added, are familiar with dim sum because of the Cantonese immigrants who brought their cuisine here with them.
Zhu first tasted Zheng’s Northern Chinese cuisine at Beijing Restaurant, located in San Francisco’s Excelsior district. She, her husband and her mother had just moved to the neighborhood. Once they had dinner at Beijing Restaurant, she and her family felt more at home there. For both women, dumplings are a special, home-cooked delicacy and family tradition. At one point, Zhu’s husband was going to make a cart for her to sell dumplings at farmers’ markets. But she and Zheng joined forces to open their first dumpling restaurant in Bernal Heights.
“I didn’t start my own dumpling restaurant because I’m not a chef,” said Zhu. She had some good home recipes, but not at the level of a professional chef. “That’s where Sandy came in. She’s in charge of the flavors and tastes, the culinary experience,” she noted. There are dozens of Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area, but Zhu explained that most of them don’t specialize in Lu Cai, the northern Chinese cuisine they both grew up with. Zhu recognized Zheng’s dishes. “They’re completely different from Cantonese, Shanghai or Sichuan cuisine, the way that Italian food is different from French,” she said.
Lu Cai cuisine manifests itself at United Dumplings in the frequent use of gluten. “It’s almost like an Italian when they make pasta or pizza dough,” Zhu said. “There’s a special requirement of how the gluten is developed. That’s where the textures come from.” Northern Chinese food contains more flour-based dishes instead of dishes served with rice. “The skins on our dumplings are probably a little bit thicker compared to the ones everybody’s used to in Chinatown,” she said. The north is also known for a stronger tasting soy sauce than in the south, and other Chinese cuisines in general.
The menu at United Dumplings includes sections devoted to bao, pot stickers, dumplings, cold appetizers and hot dishes. Grandma’s pork pot stickers (five for $8.95) contain ground pork with napa cabbage. Grandma’s recipe also incorporates those ingredients into a dumpling (eight for $10.95). The pork version of a xiao long bao (six for $10.95) includes spring onion and ginger instead of cabbage.
To distinguish between them, Zhu explained that their dumplings are not made with raised flour or boiled in water. “We do steam the vegetarian ones, but that’s rare,” she said. “If you’re going to somebody’s house, they’re boiled, not pot stickers.” Pot stickers were invented as a way to save leftover dumplings. “They’re pan-fried, and they stick to the pot,” Zhu said. Bao are usually made with raised flour and steamed. But United Dumplings makes xiao long bao—and they’re made with unraised flour but still steamed.
In some ways, comparing United Dumplings with the other recently opened restaurants—Good to Eat Dumplings and Dumpling Time—is largely a question of subjective preferences and convenience. Each restaurant serves a specific East Bay neighborhood. Regulars will probably haunt the location nearest to their front door.
Generally speaking, the food at Emeryville’s Good to Eat is the most daring and contemporary of the three restaurants. The menu changes according to the seasons and the farmers’ markets. No matter what type of dumpling a diner is in the mood to order, United Dumplings is in the business of serving familiar dishes to instill a sense of homemade comfort food.
United Dumplings, open Wed to Mon 11am–2:30pm and 4:30–9pm. 6247 College Ave., Oakland. 510.817.4070. uniteddumplings.com.