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Why do chowhounds like tacos and dumplings?

If I found a really good Shanghai restaurant, I'd make a mental beeline for the yellowfish, a whole tender fish lovingly cooked in one of seven or eight ways, perhaps with a rich brown sauce with Shaoxing wine and soy. Or perhaps a juicy, succulent pork shoulder slowly simmered with soy and mushrooms. But most people go for the dumplings. Yeah, I've tried the xiao long bao, and I do appreciate the artistry, but a plate of those would fill me. I'd sooner go for the fish.

Same with Mexican. Give me an exotic, flavorful meat (such as pig feet or maybe goat rumen) gently braised in a mole just exploding with flavors I've never tasted before. But most people spurn the moles and go for the tacos. I'm not denying that the marriage of a freshly made tortilla and a perfect filling just out of the stewpot has some merit. But how can it, or bings, or yang rou bao zi, or Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles (which are awesome by the way) or dumplings compare to the finest entrees? I just don't get it. And that probably means I'm missing something. Can someone please explain?

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  1. The same reason I got stomped on for asking something similar ... it is familiar and easy and tasty enough. The goat rumen is a hard dish to sell.

    1 Reply
    1. re: rworange

      I kind of think it's the culinary equivalent to a cheeseburger. Some folks (me included) just like that kind of stuff!!!

    2. I love moles and almost never eat tacos. I do, however, love a well-prepared dumpling. Why not have the dumpling as an appetizer and then go for the goat?

      1. I can explain that; different tastes for different folks! Makes the world go around and Chow interesting.

        WHat you call the finest, is your call, as otgher have what they call the finest. Viva la difference and share the posts!

        1. I spurn none of it and while I am a fan of dumplings and tacos, I'm also a fan of moles and fish and bistro fare and molecular gastronomical delights...

          Basically, you're painting with too broad a brush. I don't think that people eschew all of the things you're talking about but I do think that tacos and dumplings are easier to compare and, thus, easier fodder for discussion and debate.

          As to "the finest entrees"...well, just as a general rule for me, I find that entrees tend to be the least interesting parts of restaurant menus/offerings. Not because they're not dumplings or tacos....but because chefs seem to take more liberty with smaller dishes. They are willing to try more interesting and novel flavor combinations and ingredient preparations. I also much prefer smaller portions of dishes so that I can try more different dishes. A whole plate of dumplings of one sort wouldn't appeal to me any more than a pound of perfectly executed mole would.

          As to whether you're missing something....well, if you tried them and prefer other things then your'e not missing anything....you just prefer other things.

          1. I think it may break down into the theory that there are some people who love protein and some who love carbs. I used to be a teaching assistant with preschool kids in my early twenties, and you could see that trend in these kids who were only five years old. Some of them ate the meat or egg or whatever first, some went straight for the bread or crackers, even taking apart sandwiches. It's just a matter of personal preference. Now, if there actually are more carb lovers here than protein lovers, I don't know why that would be the case...

            1. Because they taste good.

              Doesn't mean I won't eat the rest of the dishes either. Everything has its place and time. Look, I prefer the taste of brie more than cheddar. Or a lovely steak to a ham sandwich. But sometimes what I want is a freakin' ham sandwich or grilled cheddar cheese. What evs. Sometimes I don't want the full commitment of a Mexican meal and really just want a quick hit. So, I get a taco. Sometimes the convenience and portability of a burrito is the ticket winner. And sometimes I want a lovingly made mole and the full works.

              It's not an either or proposition. It's all good!

              3 Replies
              1. re: chaddict

                i second chaddict's response

                it's all good!!

                1. re: kleinfortlee

                  I'll third it. But part of it is for me, that I live in a place where great Chinese and Mexican food is available, but not nearby (West L.A.) So while I can get great fish preparations nearby, I'm more likely to make the 25 mile drive if I have a specific craving for XLB (which I first tried when it was easy and accessible when I lived in Manhattan).

                  I don't know -- it also depends on the restaurant.

                  1. re: Amuse Bouches

                    Exactamundo! It all depends...

              2. For Taco, 2 words: Fast & Cheap. If I can get a couple of tacos with carnitas or huitlacoche and be out the door in 15 minutes on $4-5, I'm going to take advantage.
                Plenty of opportunity to get your offal on, too!

                For Dumplings: If you don't get xiao long bao to often, you gotta start with a few! Go with a crowd so you can have a couple and then have room to scarf down lion's head and fight for the fish cheeks. For a quick lunch, it's hard to beat a tray of that and splitting a dish with a dining partner.

                1. I agree with some of the posters here. It's not that I don't like an eating adventure--I will try almost anything (I draw the line at eyeballs, insects and some organ meats) and look forward to expanding my experiences at almost any place I go.
                  That being said, I also like my comfort foods. I think some people like to compare some really basic foods at different places and those can become a sort of barometer for how good some restaurants are.
                  For example, whenever I eat breakfast out, I will order home fries/hash browns. I was once on a project that kept me on the road for 9 months and I made it my little challenge to find the best home fries. I like to do the same for tacos, dumplings, pad thai, hamburgers, pork barbecue and margaritas. Probably some other things too that I can't think of now.
                  It's fun to compare the touchstones of a variety of cuisines, plus it's a cheap way to eat when on the road!
                  However, if what you're saying is that folks will go to restaurants with exotic menus and order ONLY tacos and dumplings and never anything else, then, yeah, I don't get it.
                  Sorry, I'm not being particularly articulate this evening. I don't think I've expressed what I want to say.

                  1. I think it's a Chowhound's inherent love of cheap, street food. I'll travel to far out of the way places for the exotic equivalent of a hot dog. I also think it's far easier to mess up the more complicated dishes in a disappointing way, than it is to mess up a taco or a dumpling. For example, my favorite taco joint is consistently disappointing when the menu gets more ambitious; I love their tacos so much I splurged one night on chicken pipian, and it was very blah. I actually tell people I recommend the place to not to order anything on the menu that's more than $3.

                    1. don't forget noodle soups, my own personal obsession, and the subject of much debate on these boards. often cheap and filling, with all the components of a good meal in one bowl. starch, protein, vegetable. tasty and fun to eat. tacos are similar, your protein, veg, stuffed into a starch that's easy to eat. and eating with your hands is fun. dumplings, too.

                      i would love to eat the fish and the mole you described, but preferably with company and a full complement of many other dishes. but that's not everyday eating, at least not for me.

                      1. I love dumplings and tacos because, well, they're like comfort food. Simple food that you could find at your Chinese or Mexican's grandma's house, not a fancy restaurant.

                        They're also dishes that most everyone can enjoy. I can share these meals with even my most pickiest friends (who can't be bothered to try, say, an Indian restaurant that doesn't serve tikka masala).

                        Plus, I just like the snack food part of it. You know, the tapas/small plate craze. It's something fun to pop into your mouth.

                        1. I tend to agree. I find tacos boring compared to an excellent mole or plate of rasted pork or goat. I really like xiao long bao but an order split among friends so you have two as an appetizer works for me. I still want to share a few entrees. Some hand pulled noodles are a great starter or tasty in a soup and I will go out of my way to find new renditions, but there better be more to the meal. I want flavors, meats, and veggies too.

                          For me it's what amyzan mentions, I'm one of the folks who go for the protein most of the time, not the carbs.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: JMF

                            See, I don't understand the obsession with xiao long bao.

                            1. re: slacker

                              On this one, I think its because they're not actually all that widely available and most of what is out there just flat out isn't very good. So, people become obsessed with finding ones they like.

                              1. re: ccbweb

                                Perhaps, but they are very available in L.A., and it's a constant topic on the LA board. It's like everyone decided to make it a trend. It is, after all, only one type of bao.

                                1. re: slacker

                                  I'm pretty much with you. I've had them once, thought they were delicious but wouldn't likely get them again soon. Granted, part of this is because my wife doesn't eat pork, so I have to eat the whole order myself and I prefer to have more different things rather than one large order of one dish.

                          2. I think far too many people opt for what's comfortable and known. They don't like to take the chance that something else could be good or better. Or at the very least, a dining experience. Most people stay in that goove that was carved out for them as a kid. Hot dogs, pizza, taco, burgers etc.

                            Myself however loves both ends of the spectrum. More and more as I get older I'm finding myself gravitating to sampler plates. To ordering appetizers as my dinner. All so I can have a larger variety of tastes and textures. Give me the mole. Give me the tacos, give me as many different options as I can get.
                            I'm more than happy to have a slice of pizza for lunch, a bahn mi for a snack and then off to a fine restaurant for Arctic char on a bed of babby greens.......you get the picture.

                            As was pointed out above, "It's all good."

                            DT

                            1. A couple reasons:

                              1- I'm veg, so the meat stuff is out.
                              2- Dumplings/tacos/tamales/etc. are the perfect serving size for me.
                              3- I like to eat with my hands.

                              That said, I love to try new things and will almost always pick an unusual dish over something I can get anywhere (the exception: an overwhelming craving).

                              1. In the case of dumplings, I just like them....and sometimes get cravings for dumplings that I don't get for some other dishes...but when it comes to tacos, most Mexican restaurants around here (SF bay area) do a much better job with tacos than they do with entrees (fine or otherwise).

                                besides, they taste good. :-)

                                1. There is a lot of talk about tacos and dumplings, isn't there? I suppose that could be because they are much more available and cheaper than those finest entrees. There's also the fun factor of comparison tasting and seeking the ultimate taco or dumpling.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: slacker

                                    "they are much more available and cheaper than those finest entrees. There's also the fun factor of comparison tasting and seeking the ultimate taco or dumpling"

                                    First of all, moles are not exactly finest entrees. The price difference is at most a couple of bucks.

                                    There's also a fun factor in discovering new food.

                                    It takes A LOT to break away from the tried and true, but when you do, the rewards are enourmous. Whatever makes you happy is fine. I just feel sorry for people eating the same old food time after time. I did that for decades and I kind of regret that time. There's a certain satisfaction in eating what you know will be good and I understand that. Its just that I find eating so much more interesting taking a chance on the unknown. I can think of one time I was really disappointed. Bolo ... don't do it ... bland Nicaraguan dish.

                                    1. re: rworange

                                      geeze louise, you read that wrong. I'm not advocating eating tacos and dumplings only for the rest of your life. I'm merely offering a possible reason for why there seems to be a lot of taco and dumpling posts.

                                      When I said "finest entrees," I was quoting the OP, and I think he used the description as a general comparison with the often-posted taco and dumpling.

                                      And it does NOT require a lot to break away from the tried and true, not for a real chowhound.
                                      I don't think I've ever spent any memorable period of time in my life eating the same old same old. Never. There's too much food to explore.

                                  2. Good point. I love dumplings, they are very special to me, perhaps because each is like a little wrapped gift, I don't know. I am a very adventurous eater, and tend towards protein rather than carbs, so dumplings and tacos are always a treat for me. But they are special. Notice that dumplings are found in almost every cuisine in the world, there must be a basic love for them. And by the way, the xiao long bao are fine, but give me plain jiaozi anytime (which any Beijinger will be glad to make an entire meal of). When I was a kid in Colorado, my best friend and neighbor was Mexican, and Sunday breakfast was always a homemade tortilla slathered in butter and stuffed with bacon; how I loved that but have never eaten it again. Food standards are all fine, but some things are just simply delicious.

                                    1. I want to thank everyone for their replies, which I've carefully read and will continue to read. I should add that the people who "go for the tacos" are, in my opinion, not just reaching for comfort food. They will travel 4 hours (in at least one case I know) to get a great taco when very good tacos are available next door to their apartment. They will spurn a taco whose filling is not totally authentic unless they are convinced that the filling is an improvement on the authentic, or is a necessary compromise because the Mexican ingredients cannot be found. I wouldnt call them obsessive but I'm sure their friends do.

                                      5 Replies
                                      1. re: Brian S

                                        I also think there is something to be said for the barometer factor. If a place has good dumplings or tacos the rest of the food is usually good too. Similar to the good bread basket concept at other restaurants. If they care about the basics they'll care about everything else.

                                        1. re: adido

                                          ADIDO! that's exactly it. the way you judge a good restaurant is how they handle the simplest, most basic dish within the particular cuisine.

                                          1. re: Kwonton

                                            In my case I've experienced a bit of a flip flop. I've found that the places with the best tacos, for example, gets pretty blah when you start moving down the menu.

                                          2. re: adido

                                            But they never try anything else. Here's my Mexican restaurant post. I've kept it going over the years trying to get people to order entrees. Almost no one has, though hundreds have gone for tacos (and have mentioned it on other threads).

                                            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/247808

                                            1. re: Brian S

                                              Yeah, but you don't know how many people will try the entrees and not report back. I think they figure you did a good job reporting and don't have anything to add. I'm often floored about casual comments here and there about places I figured no one goes to. Often people try it and don't report back.

                                              The latest surprise was a Brazilian joint that recently closed ... not without effort on my part to get the word out ... when the door closed my first reaction was to assume lack of business and I was annoyed that no one tried the place. Turns out there were major problems with the building and the health department evacuated everyone in the area ... food businsses and non food businesses.

                                              When I updated my post to note it was no more, I was surprised to see someone else had been going there and was as distressed as I was that they closed. So people might be happily chowing on those entrees and just not writing about it.

                                        2. I think it's the meat or other filling inside of dough thing. Almost every culture has it and from dumplings to knishes, jamaican meat patties to empanadas to cornish pasties, there's just something wonderful about filling stuffed inside some kind of carb dough. They are generally soothing and, in many cases, extremely delicious. There's also something childlike and thrilling about eating with your hands. It's an earthy experience. It's convenient - you can walk with it. There are many reasons we love tacos and dumplings and the others.

                                          I don't think that chowhounds like other foods any less and we're as apt to order "more adventurous" items and we opine about so many types of foods it's not really a fair assessment. But, if we are going to try to figure out the universal, not just chowhound, adoration of tacos and dumplings and the like, I think we have a much larger question.

                                          Are there any food anthropologists out there who'd like to tackle this?

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: laylag

                                            i think i meant to stress this in my earlier post, but didn't. this love for starchy, often handheld foods is hardly limited to chowhounds, and certaintly not this country. and these sorts of foods often require considerable mastery to make well. imagine pleating those dumplings day in and day out. it's not easy! and you could eat around the world eating nothing but dumplings, for example, and find each one a completely different experience, no matter how much like your own "comfort food," they resembled in looks or theory. the mandu i grew up eating are so different from XLBs, or har gow, or pierogis, or empanadas.

                                            i'm not at all opposed to trying new things, and sometimes that means what some people have been calling "entrees." but that meal in a bowl, or that meal eaten out of hand walking down the street just appeals to me, and i tend to find their cousins from other culinary regions just as appealing and familiar, yet distinctly different and new.

                                            1. re: augustiner

                                              Exactly Augustiner. I've long considered, although I have no restaurant experience but for a bad and brief stint waitressing after college, opening in NYC - need a walking culture that could support a very casual, mostly take-out restaurant - a place serving only wrapped, hand-held "something wrapped in a dough" type foods from all different cultures. Then I remember the failure rate of restaurants, the economics of even the smallest space in the city, etc. and let it go. But I wish someone would do it.

                                          2. If you ever emigrate to Canada, prepare to think of tacos as exotic and to miss them very, very much.

                                            Good dumpings are much easier to find here. Why do I like them? Because I like them- why do chowhounds have to analyse this? De gustibus non disputandum est.

                                            1. Perfect packaging. Tacos, dumplings, sandwiches, sushi and other food items that seem to have this strong attraction all have perfect packaging. The balance of starch and protein are all conveniently seasoned and assembled as handy edible parcels.

                                              Think about The Earl of Sandwich story. A bunch of guys are sitting around playing cards. Mind you, these aren't your average guys gathering for a night of poker, but guys like John Montague, right hand man of Captain James Cook. Obsession is the best word to describe men of Montague's and Cook's ilk - once they spin something around in their mind, they wrap their unabated enthusiasm around it and won't leave it alone. "James old boy - what say we travel around the world through uncharted waters and untold dangers?" "What a great idea John, why not give it a whirl..." Montague was supposedly a man who had an insatiable taste for gambling like few others, so much so that he would refuse to leave the card table for hours and hours on end - even to eat. The story has it that he requested of his manservant to bring him some slices of beef placed between some bread so Montague could continue his game unabated. Others in the tavern observed this request, an epiphany simultaneously overtook them, and from that point on, others mimmicked The Earl of Sandwich's request for his well-packaged food item, and "bring me the same as Sandwich," could be heard throughout the tavern. The rest is, you know...

                                              There's something about the perfectly packaged food item. Each bite brings it all to your senses in a seemingly perfect balance between carb and protein. The typical steak meal just doesn't seem complete without the baked potato. A tender and savory miso-marinated black cod fillet would be much too harsh and decadent without a simple bowl of steamed rice. What would a perfectly charred kebob of lamb be without a fragrant pilaf as a counter to all of its meatiness? Entrees like these are the heart of a sitdown meal. The disparate parts to these perfect meals need assembly to form the perfect union of protein and starch.

                                              Tacos, dumplings, etc., need no assembly - it has all been done for you. Pick it up with your hands or a simple set of bamboo chopsticks, take a bite, and it's all there. As you chew this one bite, the marriage of these wonderful ingredients immediately commences.

                                              A succulent xiao long bao with all of its juicy soupiness just wouldn't be the same without its edible wrapper, not only containing the juice, but simultaneously acting as a starchy platform to smooth and extend the full-flavorness of the filling.

                                              The seemingly humble taco has the potential to offer the flavor complexity of a plated entree with sides all in one bite. Where would the finest most flavorful al pastor be most honorably praised? Plating it up with a side of tortillas, rice, and frijoles just wouldn't seem to bring this incredible intensely flavored meat to its full potential. Slide it on to a freshly patted and griddled corn tortilla, along with some queso, diced onions and cilantro, fold it, and your hands and mouth will do the rest - simple perfection.

                                              And sushi? Treat yourself to a well-reputed omakase and you need not even stray away from plates no larger than the palm of your hand. The master behind the counter has taken care of all the slicing, dicing, assembly, and seasoning. In fact, to add any additional condiments, flavors or enhancements to your presented dishes would bring insult to your host. He has offered you a plated morsel so perfectly balanced in his eyes that to alter it at this point would be tantemount to blasphemy.

                                              Whether consciously or not, Chowhounders have a knack for letting their tastebuds filter out the difference between complex and complexity. This leads us right down the path of obsessing over these all-in-ones that have been refined and perfected over years, decades, and even centuries of culinary evolution. And unlike the "common" eater who will settle for anything that has been deemed popular, Chowhounders seek out the best of the best, sharing our experiences and comparing how they measure up to others of the same category. This in turn feeds the obsession even more, and so the story goes...

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: bulavinaka

                                                You should publish this.

                                                1. re: Brian S

                                                  I appreciate that - you're too kind. You, the OP, are responsible for proffering this intriguing question (and many others) that Chowhounders like me can't help but nibble on. Your inquiries sit deep and long in that part of our collective brains that interpret our senses, and after agitating and then fermenting for a while, a greater, more refined understanding of your query (and ourselves) vividly arises, making blurting out a response to be the easy part!

                                              2. Also...dumplings are a way for us to enjoy the good shanghainese restaurant while spending only $5 on a great meal!