It was not the most arduous trek, to Journey to the Dumpling in Elk Grove. But it did involve rain, rush-hour freeway traffic from Sacramento and an intense, highly specific craving.
Since tasting xiao long bao – or soup-filled dumplings – for the first time a year ago at Sacramento’s Yang’s Noodles, we had yearned for more hits of savory broth and ground pork housed in delicate, artfully folded wheat-flour wrappers.
But when we returned to Yang’s a month ago, the spoonlike cups holding the dumplings contained just as much soup outside the wrapper as within it. This is not how we remembered them.
Xiao long bao was otherwise hard to find locally until Journey to the Dumpling opened three months ago in the busy, casual-restaurant-filled Target shopping center on Laguna Boulevard. The journey to which the restaurant’s name – a play on the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” – refers culminates with readily available soup dumplings. They are made with a rich chicken-pork stock set in gelatin form until it is ready to be mixed with ground pork or seafood, wrapped in dough and steamed. The heating process turns the dumpling’s interior into soup.
With Journey to the Dumpling’s pork soup dumpling comes a side of earthy Chinese black vinegar spiked by fresh ginger, a spoon ready for dumpling-cradling, and chopsticks. One can line the spoon with vinegar before placing the dumpling on it. Biting a small hole into the top of the dumpling releases steam before one picks it up with chopsticks.
The resulting mouthful offers – for those who have not tried xiao long bao before – a new way to experience the soul-satisfying combination of the broth-y and the bread-y. To be clear about the homey effect to which I refer: Matzo balls in chicken soup can create it. Most soup noodles do not, because of thinness or slickness. Satisfaction derives from tasting the flour.
This taste is strongest in Journey to the Dumpling’s knockout pan-fried pork buns, which hold the same pork soup as the dumplings, in a thicker, biscuitlike wrapper beautifully browned at the bottom. Bigger than the pork dumplings, these soup-filled creations also are harder to navigate.
Chris Tan and Yvonne Nguyen, two of Journey to the Dumpling’s three owners, take different approaches to eating a pan-fried pork bun. Tan lets the bun sit for a bit, to cool, before plopping the whole thing in his mouth. Nguyen bites a hole at the top and sips at the soup before diving in.
Tan, 33, is the restaurant’s general manager. He and Nguyen, 28, who runs the front of the house, and chef Justin Yang, 34, worked together at another Elk Grove restaurant Tan co-owned, the seafood-and-sports oriented Chason’s Crab Stadium (New York’s Madison Avenue should take note of Tan’s restaurant-naming talents).
The trio decided to go into business together. Tan wanted to sell non-soup dumplings and ramen. Nguyen – recalling fondly the xiao long bao she ate regularly at a restaurant in San Diego during college but could not find again when she returned to her hometown of Elk Grove – suggested soup dumplings.
Yang, originally from Guangdong, China, learned to craft xiao long bao from a mentor chef from Shanghai. Yang shows a deft touch with anything involving a wrapper, from soup dumplings that hold crab instead of pork, to wontons covered in garlic-rich chili oil and texture-enhancing chopped peanuts. Textural variance also distinguishes Journey to the Dumpling’s pot stickers, which come with a crisp, flour-solution “skirt” similar in consistency to the cheese skirt on Squeeze Inn burgers.
Journey to the Dumpling’s pancake with green onion also stands out, for achieving just the right thickness and density, the bits of onion carefully placed throughout to offset the rich flavor. Other non-dumpling dishes from the restaurant’s more extensive Chinese-food menu have yet to be perfected. The meat in the spare-rib noodle soup tasted overcooked, as did the noodles in the chow fun with black-bean sauce. The salt-and-pepper wings chicken tasted as if they had been sitting too long.
Our favorite non-wrapper dish was Hong Kong chow mein, the noodles of which were crisp around the plate’s edges and softer in the middle, thanks to the weight and moisture of zucchini, bok choy and tender chicken covered in a chicken-stock-based gravy.
Everything good at Journey to the Dumpling tastes better because of highly attentive service. On my first visit, my companion noted that our server, who was to my back, had been about to approach our booth when she noticed we were deep in conversation and decided to retreat momentarily. On a subsequent visit, I tried to order the whole soup-dumpling shebang in order to wow a new companion. Our server, rather than try to pad the check total, pointed out that we were ordering two types of dough-covered pork soup when we should stick to one.
Journey to the Dumpling holds more visual appeal than a lot of strip-mall restaurants. Modern touches such as the service staff’s sleek, all-black outfits and stainless-steel soy sauce and vinegar dispensers on each table nicely counterbalance traditional touches like a wallpaper reproduction – covering most of available wall space – of the famous “Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival” hand scroll.
When you consider the attention to detail that goes into the service and setting at a restaurant charging less than $10 for most plates, Journey to the Dumpling is truly exceptional. Especially since they had me at “xiao long bao.”
Journey to the Dumpling
7419 Laguna Blvd., Suite 180, Elk Grove. 916-509-9556, www.journeytothedumpling.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Beverage options: Bottled beer and canned beer, including Tsingtao and Track 7 Panic. Limited wine list. Premium hot teas.
Vegetarian-friendly: Not particularly.
Gluten-free options: Few
Ambiance: This Chinese restaurant in the Target shopping center adeptly mixes modern and traditional design elements. The crowd on our visits included parents with young children, as well as couples and groups of friends in their 30s and 40s.
Journey to the Dumpling would be a destination just for its xiao long bao pork soup dumplings. But it offers tasty variations on those dumplings as well, along with good service and a welcoming atmosphere.
Go for the xiao long bao, or dumplings with soup inside, or the pan-fried pork bun, which contains soup in a thicker, biscuit-like wrapper. Chef Justin Yang is good with anything that comes in a wrapper, including non-soup dumplings, won tons with chili oil, and pot stickers. Some other dishes we tried, including the chow fun with black bean sauce and spare-rib soup, have yet to be perfected.
Service ☆☆☆ 1/2
Above and beyond for a restaurant at this price level.
Most plates are stacked with food and cost less than $10.