Flavor Garden's golden shrimp dumpling was so named for a reason no longer apparent at first glance. At 10 to a plate for $6.99, they are plump with tofu, scallions and fresh shrimp. Reference to ingots that dumplings have traditionally symbolized in Chinese culture notwithstanding, they appear like any other dumpling. It turns out owner Jenny Peng had slightly grander plans for the wrapper that enrobed the filling she fashioned after a similar dish she has enjoyed at Chinese seafood restaurants.
Flavor Garden opened last October in the space that housed longtime neighborhood favorite A&J Restaurant before it lived as A&E for a time. An eight-character motto adorns a page on the takeout menu; it roughly translates as "made-to-order" and "authentic." Authenticity at Flavor Garden is less geo-specific than it is a synthesis of Peng's experiences that reaches back to her life in the megalopolis of Chongqing. She recalls her mother working on mianshi (a genus of food dough-related) at a restaurant. It wasn't until settling in Los Angeles nearly 13 years ago that Peng developed the skills in mianshi-making germinated by her mother. She has since rolled out her share of mianshi at SGV restaurants including Dumpling 10053, Noodle House and Ding's Restaurant. Noodle House, incidentally, has a version of shrimp and tofu dumpling.
Peng explains in Mandarin, "I've integrated the preferences of Taiwan, China and even our Chongqing, because I've worked everywhere. I based the restaurant's menu on this."
Peng ticks off basic requisites in a good dumpling that begin with a Q wrapper. Whereas her dumpling wrappers are huskier and more akin to Northern Chinese dumplings in thickness, she points out the importance of avoiding mushy thick wrappers that stick to one's teeth. She cites the Taiwanese notion of Q when describing her idea of the perfect wrapper.
The Q factor is a measure of texture comparable to the Italian expression of al dente, with "to the tooth" encompassing more than its popular connection to pasta. A piece of calamari or beef tendon cooked just right can be appreciated by a Taiwanese as Q as they would a bowl of noodles. It's all in the nuance of bite, caught just between undercooked and done. Those inclined toward Northern Chinese-style dumplings may balk at the profile of the shrimp-tofu filling with hints of sweetness from the soft tofu and fresh shrimp, though. Even edged by a smattering of chopped scallions, the dumpling remains subtle in flavor. Peng says this dumpling suits the Taiwanese palate.
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Preferences for stronger flavors will be appeased by the Sichuan red chili oil wontons that come a sizable dozen per order ($5.99). Peng observes most of the elements that compose this classic. Each bowl is topped with sesame seeds, chopped scallions and peanuts. The heat from the red chili oil is kept to a tickle with even hits of peppercorn that peek through. From there, she takes a step away by anchoring the chili oil with peanut sauce.
"I like trying new places and going online to see what others are doing. I'll absorb what's good and come up with my own version. Then I'll use what I feel is most acceptable to everyone," Peng says.
Not every idea has panned out. The shrimp tofu dumpling's golden label refers to its previous appearance. At first, Peng made the dumplings in a rainbow of wrappers to attract a younger crowd, only to find that what was popular in China didn't translate across the Pacific. She dyed her wrappers with vegetable juice: Red cabbage colored the wrappers of the beef dumplings, carrots for the golden shrimp tofu dumplings and spinach to turn the wrappers of vegetarian dumplings green. She stopped using dyes a few months ago.
"We'll introduce new items after a while. Otherwise, if a restaurant always has the same flavor, the longevity is limited," says Peng, undaunted.