10 years seems like a long time. When you measure 10 years in board games, movie nights, birthday parties, Star Trek episodes and cat head boops – it actually goes by pretty fast. I first met Joel Bartlett when we were coworkers at PETA over 10 years ago. Dan’s known Joel even longer. They’ve been working together saving animals since they were wee activists on the Wesleyan campus back in the late 90s. He’s one of our oldest friends and now our newest neighbor. You all might know him from his work these days as PETA’s Director of Marketing Innovations and for his namesake – our Sloppy Joels in Betty Goes Vegan or maybe you first met him a few months ago when we made our Sloppy Joel Pie. He’s also an avid world traveler, vegan food enthusiast and today’s guest blogger contributing a travel piece about two men on a mission…
Inspired by an LAist article on the best dumplings in Los Angeles my friend Ryan and I decided to go on a vegan dumpling tour of Los Angeles County, focusing on the heavily Chinese American cities of the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles City. Ryan and I share an interest in both delicious vegan food and international travel so spending a day food exploring this region (all five cities we visited contain an Asian American majority) is as close to our ideal without spending a thousand dollars.
1. Qing Dao Bread Food
Dumpling Count: 12
We got a funny look at our small order… little did our server know what we had planned for the day. We chose steamed dumplings, but later after learning that a pan-fried was less common I regretted the decision. The dumplings were filled with vermicelli noodles, scallions, mushrooms, and very small morsels of tofu. They were wonderfully fresh—though a little slimy and watery—and held up well despite our lack of chopsticks expertise.
Most notably the dumplings came with a strong garlic vinegar dipping sauce. Ryan was a fan, but I was turned off by the over-powering flavor of the garlic. Even after we had finished our next stop on the tour the garlic was still lingering in my mouth.Qing Dao Bread Food is located at 301 North Garfield Avenue in Monterey Park.
Mama’s Lu Dumpling House
Order: 10 Steamed Dumplings
Dumpling Count: 22
Mama’s Lu or Mama Lu’s, depending on which sign you looked at, was packed at 11:30 a.m. with families waiting in the hall listening to Boy George play overhead. We got our order to go because of the long wait and our ambitious plans for the day, which was a slight shame since it seemed like a great sit-down restaurant.
The carrots in the dumplings were the strongest flavor. We preferred their sticky consistency over Qing Dao’s slimy dough. It was a good sign that the flavor was pleasant that they tasted better on their own than with overpowering soy sauce.Mama’s Lu Dumpling House is located at 153 E Garvey Ave in Monterey Park.
Fine Garden Vegetarian Cuisine
Order: Four Pork Siu Mai and Steamed Four Shark’s Fin Gow
Dumpling Count: 30
Fine Garden is an all-vegetarian dim sum place run by extremely nice people. We placed two orders because this place was going to have the widest selection of the day. Still the server told us, “Next time try more,” with a big smile. After asking if we were 100% vegetarian she told us “you’ve come to the right place.” I agree.
According to the LAist article of the top vegetarian restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley that tipped us off to Fine Garden, “the shui mai (pork dumpling) is made with soy crab and tastes just like the real thing.” At this point I can’t claim to know what a “real” pork dumpling actually tastes like, but I appreciated how this was a heartier dumpling than the veggie ones we had at the first two stops. They were slightly sweet with a subtle flavor. Both dumplings were well presented. We are suckers for the dramatic pulling the top off the metal steaming tray. The steam dissipated and our bright yellow dumplings appeared.
Ryan insisted we try the (vegan) shark fin dumpling for novelty’s sake. As someone who never enjoyed seafood, it was hard for me not to be turned off by the faux shark fin—but that’s because of me, not the dumpling. We really had no idea what it really was. I was too distracted to really even get a good sense of the taste but Ryan guessed it had some sea vegetables. Ryan enjoyed it.
The complimentary soup was a nice gesture and would have been enjoyed even more if I wasn’t slightly preoccupied with wondering just how much volume my stomach could hold.
Next time I’m in town I plan on coming back here with a group of friends and with no plans to go to nine other restaurants that day.Fine Garden Vegetarian Cuisine is located at 841 West Las Tunas Drive in San Gabriel.
Order: 6 Vegetable Buns
Dumpling Count: 36
On Wikipedia it’s clear that the term “dumpling” is pretty general. Get some dough and boil, steam, bake, or fry it with or without a filling and you’ve got yourself a dumpling. So we diverted from the classic vegetable dumpling to try the vegetable buns at Wang Xing Ji. Sadly the “XL buns” aren’t vegan so we were left with the normal sized ones. The restaurant was a nice big place on the second story of a big shopping area. You know they take their dumpling seriously because there were windows to look into the dumpling making room.
The buns were soft and fluffy but the filling was a bit bland. Perhaps we were psychologically steered to expect them to be so after the server tried to persuade us to try the pork buns instead. We were, however, once again impressed with the dramatic and steamy reveal of the dumplings after the lid was pulled off the steam tray.
The one other white guy in the place, dining with his presumed Chinese wife, came up to our table to talk to us and we proceeded to have a super awkward conversation about dumplings (admittedly our vegan dumpling tour is an eccentric idea). As we were leaving he told us that he confirmed the soup dumplings, which he recommended, weren’t vegan and also let us know that the Chinese that live in Manhattan’s Chinatown are dirty so I’m better off sticking to Brooklyn and Queens. Awkward advice from a stranger!Wang Xing Ji is located at 140 West Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel.
King Hua Restaurant
Order: 3 King Hua Pan-Fried Vegetable Dumplings
Dumpling Count: 39
It turns out that going to huge dim sum halls where most people are in groups of six or more is awkward when you’re getting just one small order of dumplings. We had to fight off the people walking around with trays of additional food. Interestingly this and Din Tai Fung were the only places with more than one other set of non-Asian customers.
I was excited to try pan-fried dumplings for the first time of the day but was disappointed that they were so gooey. And sure it was cool when the sever whipped out scissors to literally cut the dumplings in half but then they fell all over the place when we tried to eat them. These dumplings got extremely low marks for eatability.
Lastly, this place had huge tanks full of poor sea animals waiting to be plucked, killed, cut up, cooked, eaten, and eventually shit out. I would never go again just for that.King Hua is located at 2000 West Main Street in Alhambra.
Tasty Dumpling House
Order: 12 Chinese Wild Vegetable and Tofu Dumplings
Dumpling Count: 51
We were headed for another dim sum restaurant when we saw this place across the street calling out to us. After the awkwardness of King Hua I was pretty keen to avoid dim sum where the entire point is to order a bunch of items. Our vegan dumpling tour is just gonna be weird there. Tasty Dumpling was a quiet, clean, new dumpling restaurant where the servers will not be fazed if you order just an order of dumplings.
The tofu filling was exciting and yes, the dumplings were tasty. The held together very well and had a nice sticky texture and we loved the presentation with three different colored dumplings. Gold star Tasty Dumpling.
It was only after eating 51 dumplings total did we create a goal of 100 for the day. I was still excited to eat more but we did begrudgingly admit to each other that we both were suffering from slight headaches (MSG overload probably—not sure which places were the culprits).Tasty Dumpling House is located at 621 W Main Street in Alhambra.
QQ Kitchen is a half-vegetarian Taiwanese restaurant situated between a Subway and a Domino’s. They were out of vegetarian pot stickers!QQ Kitchen is located at 9441 1/2 Las Tunas Drive in Temple City.
Din Tai Fung
Order: 10 Vegetarian Steamed Dumplings and One Each of Taro, Sesame, and Red Bean Steamed Buns
Dumpling Count: 64
We heard from multiple sources that Din Tai Fung has the best dumplings in Los Angeles, but we also heard it was overrated. We arrived around 3 p.m., which I recommend, because we were seated right away. By the time we left there was a line out the door. This place does serious business (which is why they have a second location right next door). Like Wang Xing Ji they offer windows to look into their dumpling making room.
So does Din Tai Fung live up to the hype? This vegan dumpling eater says, “Yes.” Their dumplings were the prettiest, most art-fully crafted of the day. The dough was think but firm and not wet at all. The flavorful vegetable filling was minced. The presentation was also well done. Ryan dubbed them, “World Class Dumplings.” We had come a long way from the mom and pop place we started the day at.
Eager to try more of what Din Tai Fung offered we also ordered one of each of the dessert steamed buns. They were all delicious. I’m partial to sesame and Ryan preferred the taste of the red bean, but there’s no question that one of each was the right call.Din Tai Fung is located at 1108 South Baldwin Avenue in Arcadia.
Order: 10 Vegetable Steamed Dumplings
Dumpling Count: 74
I appreciate more now the benefit of going to a restaurant that specializes in something. The dumplings at Dumpling House were different from the others and from what you’d buy in a store. They were packed full of vegetables, especially minced carrots and didn’t have any vermicelli noodles, which I don’t think add anything to a dumpling. They were durable dumplings. Ryan exclaimed, “You could build a house out of these.” Admittedly the off-color yellow was less appetizing than other dumplings of the day and they were a bit soggy on the bottom. We were the only customers at Dumpling House, which was just across the street from busy Din Tai Fung, but this just meant that our joyful server was just extra attentive.
Most telling that Ryan’s stamina for dumplings was wearing thin was his reaction when the dumplings were revealed: “Oh god, they are big!”Dumpling House is located at 921 S Baldwin Avenue in Arcadia.
Bean Sprouts Vegetarian Restaurant
Order: 10 Steamed Dumplings
Dumpling Count: 84
Bean Sprouts is the first restaurant of the day that made me think they had probably bought their dumplings frozen from the store. These were the most standard steam dumplings of the day. Standard filling (cabbage, bean curd, mushroom, vermicelli), standard dough, standard everything. On another day it might not stand out as such, but when you’ve had so many others it was glaring.
But hey, it was a clean, friendly place. I very much enjoyed my sweet iced winter melon tea. Ryan liked the miso soup he got to tease his taste buds with something other than dumplings. The brown dipping sauce was good too.
After a combined 84 dumplings Ryan was looking in rough shape, but I was still feeling good and eager for more dumplings!
Garden Fresh Vegetarian Food
Order: 8 Boiled Vegetable Dumplings, 8 Pan Fried Dumplings, and Hot and Sour Dumpling Soup
Final Dumpling Count: 105
The final stop! Garden Fresh Vegetarian was a little grungy and worn (the opposite of Bean Sprouts) and in a strip mall (across from a strip club). It was finally a proper meal time again and there were some Chinese families sitting at the tables by us. The pan-fried dumplings were a little whole-wheaty. They had some crispiness, but I hungered for something a bit crunchier. We ordered boiled dumplings purely because they were different, but they seemed pretty similar to steamed dumplings. I was admittedly more focused on getting them down than the nuances at this point.
Ryan really struggled to reach his personal 50 dumpling goal. This photo of him with his head down contemplating how he’s going to manage to finish the last dumpling was not staged. I, on the other hand, enjoyed the dumplings all the way to number 50!
One of the worst decisions I’ve ever made was ordering the hot and sour dumpling soup. I wanted a different way to eat dumplings to finish off the tour, but I didn’t expect the soup to be as big as my face. Somehow I managed to eat the whole thing—which contained five boiled dumplings—and pushed my final personal dumpling count to 55. Ryan didn’t touch his soup.Garden Fresh Vegetarian Food is located at 16034 E Gale Avenue in Hacienda Heights.
Dumplings are identical on the menu, more or less the same on a plate, but once you bite in you discover a great diversity of flavor.