If you've popped into ROC Kitchen for soup dumplings anytime during its soft opening over these last few weeks, you may have run into several West L.A. residents who, as they readied their soup spoons, may have told you how long, exactly, they've waited for something "like this" to open. And they may have volunteered details of the last time they had xiao long bao -- invariably, in Arcadia on a Sunday; invariably, months ago, when the parents were in town; invariably, they've meant to go back, because too bad there isn't a dumpling house any closer.
So when Perry Cheung, the chef and owner of ROC Kitchen says, "It was about time" that soup dumplings went west of the 405, that may very well be one of the understatements of the year (along with, possibly, "It's not elegantly stated"). Tomorrow (Saturday), he, along with restauranteur Nak Kim, officially open their dumpling house in the same building that powerhouses Tsujita L.A. and Nong Lá Café on Sawtelle Boulevard. It will be open for both lunch and dinner.
Cheung comes to L.A. after several years at San Francisco's The Slanted Door; he made his way up to the Executive Sous Chef position before deciding he needed a change, packed it up and left for Southern California two years ago. He lived and worked around L.A. and Orange County during that time, very briefly serving as a consultant for Rama, then decided to go all in and open up his own dumpling shop on Sawtelle.
"I've always loved dumplings," he says, rattling off New York's Joe's Shanghai and Nan Xiang Dumpling House as reference points. Along with, of course, Din Tai Fung. At ROC Kitchen, he's hoping to strike a balance between the markedly soupy dumplings you'd find in Flushing with the less soupy version at Din Tai Fung. "We try to meet in the middle," he says, "Where it's not too much soup, not too little. Like a East Coast-West Coast hybrid."
And though you may quibble over allegiances to one coast's dumplings over the other the way you'd argue Biggie versus Tupac, you might be missing the other point of ROC Kitchen, which, Cheung says, is to "elevate" the dumpling. Everything here is made from scratch using fresh, local ingredients, from the broth for the soup to the dough for the wrappers.
"Shanghai dumplings are just one of those classic things -- there's so much work that goes into it, you can't change it. You gotta get the base right, and then elevate it from there," he says.
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Other than pork, there are dumplings stuffed with fresh crab, and Cheung is tinkering around with the idea of filling the dumplings with lobster. Beyond this core menu -- assuming you can get past the XLB, anyway -- you'll find a short list of other family-style dishes: Three cup chicken, rice cakes tossed with Napa cabbage, green scallion pancakes and so on. Plus more to come.
It is, after all, about time.