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!