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Sep 20, 2008 05:09 PM

Tasting is Believing: Mama's Dumplings Rockville

I thank ALL of you who recommended a visit to China Bistro (also known as Mama's Dumplings, though that is nowhere on the signage) in Rockville.

Tyler Cowen called the house specialty far and away the best dumplings in the area, and I agree.

My wife (AKA "I don't have to order dumplings, what if I just want some moo goo gai pan?") and I maneuvered the van through the tight parking lot of the tiny strip mall, to find a tiny restaurant with just four tables and a line 3 or 4 customers long who were awaiting takeout. Later I was shown a "back dining room" with more seating.

The other customers were 90% Asian (always a good sign) and big bowls of noodles and plates of dumpings flowed by, making us very excited to discover what we'd experience.

Behind the glass at the counter were about 20 cold dishes (kimchee, pickled this and that, my glasses failed me) near a list of daily specials including some interesting noodle soups. My wife relented on her determination to order the most ordinary thing on the menu, and for once we shared at a Chinese meal! [*dances with joy*]

Ordered three plates of dumplings (we shoulda stopped at two), vegetarian egg rolls and scallion pancake.

Most dumplings are listed at $7.95 each, and that gets you a dozen huge steamed dumplings (50c extra for fried ... stick with steamed, you'll enjoy the subtle flavor more). They make them to order, there's no "tired food" here.Each of us was given a tiny plate to eat on, and a sauce bowl, and at table were a cruet of vinegar-based "dumpling sauce", a little pot of plain vinegar, and a jar of hot chili oil. No mustard, no duck sauce ... I would have followed my usual habit of defaulting to the sweet duck saucve, and I would have missed a lot if I had. Server brought two melamine plates, clearly the same plates on which the dumplings had been made and steamed, on each was a wooden clothespin marked with the type of dumplings on the plate. The dumplings were quite large, the dozen of them filling their ten-inch plate.

The best flavor was the "beef and celery" dumplings - we were awestruck at the first bite, delighted by the freshness (no doughy wrappers, no tired filling) and the subtlety. The other plate was "pork with dill" dumplings, something I've never seen in Asian cuisine, and agaiun the freshness was wonderful, but frankly, dividing them between just two of us, we got tired of the dill. The third plate, ordered later, was "Mama's Special," filled with pork and shrimp and chives and napa. Again, the freshness was a joy, but the blend of flavors was too familiar when we were so enjoying a meal of unusual flavors. If it seems that 2 out of 3 disappointed, please don't get that impression - we were well aware that each style was far better than we had ever had before, and next time we will explore other selections.

As wonderful as the dumplings were, the two stars of the meal, for both of us, were the scallion pancake ($1.75) and the vegetarian egg rolls ($2.50). I know I say that at the risk of your scorn, but bear with me please. The scallion pancake was thin and crisp, six sections that had a perfect balance of flavor. I've had some before that were doughy and oozed oil, but not this one!

And the "egg roll" was perfection! Small, crisp, filled with napa and cellophane noodles, and perfectly cooked - it almost evaporated when bitten (I find that type of wrapper almost always too tough). I understand that this, like the rest of the "General Cho's / Kung Pao" items on the menu was a concession to the American crowd, but it deserves a far higher place in the pecking order.

We overestimated our appetites and found such a large order was too much, in the end, but I went home with a big satisfied smile. The bill was only about $29.

AN ADDED BONUS: Ask, as I did, where the rest room is, and you'll be directed all the way through the kitchen to the back. The rest room is frightening (if that puts you off, it's your great loss - more room for me) but the chance to tour the kitchen was a thrill. A big Hobart mixer worked on a fresh batch of dough, and a single tiny rice cooker betrayed the general lack of interest in "Chicken with Cashews". As expected, a busy team stood next to plates heaped with raw fillings, making dumplings quickly and carefully. A small home-size pasta machine made me wonder if that's how they flatten the dough.

Verdict: Go! Just go! Take friends, and order the dumplings, and you'll experience something exciting and guaranteed to please!

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  1. Glad you liked it, it's definitely one of my lunch standbys since I work right down the street. They actually have the best Americanized Chinese food in the area too, because let's face it - every once in a while everbody gets a craving for General Tsos.

    1. Where exactly in Rockville is this place?

      1 Reply
      1. re: daynasch

        755 Hungerford Dr.

        It's in the south side of the shopping center that also has Pho 75, Radio Shack, and Flagship Car Wash. Just north of the Giant.

        China Bistro
        755 Hungerford Dr, Rockville, MD

      2. Wayne - you said there is a back room to this place but most of the reviews say there is only 3-4 tables available. I'd like to go with my family (including one young child), if I go, will there be seating? Reviews make it sound like a take out joint.

        3 Replies
          1. re: daynasch

            While I didn't inspect closely, I saw (in addition to the VERY few tables in front) a room around to the left behind the register (between the order-counter in front and the kitchen in back) where the cashier directed a group of 6 or 7 people who came in late in our meal.

            1. re: daynasch

              There are exactly 8 4-tops in the place. Four of them in the front room when you walk in, and four in the room behind the counter.

              I've been there at lunch, at dinner, weekday and weekend, and I've NEVER had to wait for a table.

            2. Yes I agree. Best dumplins I've ever had. I go there every few weeks just for the dumplins.

              1. "(also known as Mama's Dumplings, though that is nowhere on the signage)"

                It's there, it's just written in Chinese characters.

                8 Replies
                1. re: yukimika

                  How is this place doing since these reports from last fall?

                  1. re: chowsearch

                    It's still on my regular rotation. Fabulous stuff.

                    1. re: chowsearch

                      It's too small to ever be "packed", but there's still always a steady stream of customers at lunch. Quality has been consistent ever since I've been going there - almost 3 years now.

                      1. re: reiflame

                        I'm not sure what "too small to be packed" means. At dinner time, even on a weeknight, it is not uncommon to have to wait for a table. After all, they only have 7 tables, all of them 4-tops...

                        1. re: DanielK

                          When I've gone, there are usually people lined up to the door, many of them takeout customers. But there's a table ready or soon becoming ready ... I think the number of people standing and waiting scares off too big a line for the tables.

                          1. re: wayne keyser

                            Yeah, I'm not saying I wait 30 minutes for a table. Turnover is fast; I don't think I've ever been here even an hour for a complete meal. But with only 7 tables, it's not uncommon to wait a few minutes.

                          2. re: DanielK

                            Just that most people carry the food out and forgo waiting based on the size of the place.

                            1. re: reiflame

                              I am going here on Weds for dinner- cannot wait- it sounds great!