When foodies in the know crave distinctive house-made xiao long bao (Chinese soup dumplings steamed in small bamboo baskets), they often head to a small cafe called Luscious Dumplings in the heart of dumpling-rich San Gabriel for their fix. These dumplings are decidedly more rustic and fiendishly delicious than the almost too perfectly pleated dumplings served by the corporate-leaning Din Tai Fung chain. One bite of the profoundly juicy, ceaselessly savory flavor bomb is enough to achieve pure gastronomic bliss for a mere moment, which surely more than makes up for the likely exhausting drive in oppressive L.A. traffic.
Fortunately, the owners behind Luscious Dumplings have opened a tasty new concept, Mason's Dumpling Shop, in the rapidly gentrifying Eastside neighborhood of Highland Park. (The name of the dumpling shop stems from the owner's son, Mason.) The cute, eye-catching cursive script of the Mason's logo is ripe for franchising across the city, which would be an excellent development.
Sandwiched between a Subway and a Little Caesars in your garden-variety (read: nondescript) mini-mall, Mason's — housed in a now-defunct taco shop — has been doing brisk business since opening in January. It's a clean, modern, minimalist space, with none of the drab, dark, old-fashioned atmosphere of Chinatown dumpling spots.
Mason's pithy menu prominently features its signature dumplings: boiled, steamed or pan-fried. In addition to various dumplings, a couple token rice bowls (Angus stewed beef and pork belly) and meaty buns are offered as well as light vegetable side dishes.
The handmade steamed crab and pork soup dumplings are juicy and meaty; they sing with the sweet oceanic profile of fresh shredded crab.
As for the famous soup dumplings, be careful that the precious juice doesn't singe your tongue as you bite through the doughy yet supple skin. Unwavering patience here pays dividends. Each dumpling is loaded with a meat aspic that melts into liquid as the dumplings are carefully steamed, which creates the soup.
Minced sole fish dumplings are more subtly restrained, so a light dip in vinegar brings the flavor together. Pan-fried chicken and cabbage dumplings are offered as a healthier option, while beef and cheese dumplings (yes, cheese!) is the jiaozi answer to the lunch-counter cheeseburger.
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This is strictly a no-frills, order-at-the-counter, quick-service joint with prices to match: Everything is less than $10. Mason's Dumpling Shop often runs out of dumplings due to the overwhelming demand and the fact that, as a handwritten note on the front door cautions, all the dumplings are "scratch made by hand every morning." So it's wise to arrive early. Currently Mason's is operating under limited lunch hours (closing at 4) with the hopes of expanding into dinner service soon.
While not in the same league as the dumplings, the vegetable side dishes are worthy complements. Sweet and sour lotus root is something you don't see on menus everyday. These crunchy, crisp, thick slices of lotus root are perfectly pickled and as deeply satisfying a snack as a bag of potato chips — and significantly better for you. Baby bok choy marinated in soy is the greens you need to cut through the richness of the rest of your meal with a wallop of vibrant flavor. However, the sticky, syrupy oyster sauce served on the side is superfluous and sadly cloying.
Mason's is the type of deeply satisfying dumpling joint that I keep wishing would make its way further west.
Mason's Dumpling Shop, 5803 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park; (323) 999-7187.