Photo by Anne Fishbein
Since I started loitering in San Gabriel 15 years ago, the plaza at the southeast corner of Las Tunas and Mission has always been my favorite mini-mall in Los Angeles, home at various times to a Malaysian restaurant, a Japanese snack store, and Saigon-style cafés serving all-beef dinners, a coffeehouse populated by Vietnamese James Deans, a dive specializing in the stir-fried dishes of Nanjing, and a storefront Shanghainese diner that seemed to change names (but not menus) every few months, and a vegetable store whose business was conducted so surreptitiously that it was easy to theorize that really fresh kangkong was somehow illegal. Many of the restaurants were among the very best of their type in the area; all of them were good. If you included the mini-mall cater-corner to this one, which hosted at one point or another Indonesian, Taiwanese, Korean, Jiangzhe, Shandong, Vietnamese, Chinese vegetarian and Chiu Chow–style seafood restaurants, you had the San Gabriel Valley’s food scene in microcosm, almost every kind of Asian cuisine you could dream of within a pickled-egg’s toss of the local 7-Eleven, with takeout pizza parlors, a Foster’s Freeze and a Jack in the Box thrown into the mix just for fun.
As you might imagine, the competition among dumpling houses is pretty fierce in this particular neighborhood, where a decent Chinese potsticker may be easier to find than a loaf of bread. Mandarin Noodle House, king of the potsticker restaurants, is only a few minutes south; Dumpling Master just a few miles west; Dumpling House a mile or so east. Dumpling-intensive breakfast shops and Shanghainese joints and dim sum halls are more common than fast-food franchises.
So when Luscious Dumplings Inc. opened three years ago, it was lost in the crowd, one of a hundred possible places in the area to consider at lunchtime. I went a few times early on, and found no particular reason why I should prefer it to the splendid Vietnam House in the same mall.
Luscious Dumplings occupies the usual small storefront, features the usual few sticky tables, and has the usual corner television set permanently tuned to the news. As at Din Tai Fung and Q Noodle House, the menu takes the form of a printed checklist attached to a clipboard, and is limited to a few kinds of dumplings and noodles. If you are a connoisseur of the form, you will find a lot of things to like at the restaurant, including steamed pork dumplings sharply flavored with celery, dense vegetarian dumplings stuffed with mushrooms and pressed tofu, and respectable soup dumplings that are tastier, if less refined, than some.
The free appetizer of chopped celery with peanuts is delicious, as is the steamed bok choy served with thick, briny oyster sauce. The stewed pig’s knuckle is locally renowned. The noodles in a dark, strong sauce of pork and minced mushrooms are quite nice, and the stout, well-balanced chicken broth tastes as if it had met a winter melon somewhere along the way. If the restaurant were in, say, Boston’s Chinatown, there would be lines around the block. In this neighborhood, the lines seem to be limited to weekend afternoons.
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But a couple of weeks ago I was hit by the thunderbolt, as it was illustrated in The Godfather, a sense that I had encountered some kind of eternal truth lying right there on the plate. (The movie was describing romantic love instead of potstickers, but I believe that Francis Ford Coppola had never tasted these particular dumplings.)
These potstickers are misshapen, less than perfectly sealed, and often unevenly fried. As the product of human hands, they are better some evenings than on others. I have been back to Luscious Dumplings often, and I have always ordered the potstickers, but I have never gotten dumplings quite as they were on that most beautiful of afternoons.
These pan-fried pork dumplings were magnificent things, flattened hemispheres blackened to a luminous, carbon-edged crunch, heavily caramelized where meat seepage hits hot steel. They exploded in the mouth with a blistering, onion-scented pop, a primal flood of juice, of heat, of flavor. These were neither the precision-engineered spheroids of Din Tai Fung nor the assembly-line lumps you find at Dumpling Master, but different, soulful creatures unto themselves, in a homemade style I might call grandmotherly if each of Luscious Dumplings’ employees didn’t look as if he’d just stepped out of a scrimmage with the UCLA volleyball team. The usual cruets of toasted-chile oil, vinegar and soy sauce were on the tables, but it was hard to envision a dumpling less in need of embellishment.
Luscious Dumplings Inc., 704 W. Las Tunas Dr., No. E4, San Gabriel, (626) 282-8695. Lunch and dinner, Tues.–Sat. 11 a.m–2 p.m. and 5–8 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Lunch for two, food only, $10–$16.