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Mar 26, 2013 12:22 AM

Zen Dumpling in Watsonville (Harbin Chinese!)

The San Francisco Bay Area has seen several new openings of Northern Chinese style restaurants in the last couple years to mix it up a bit with the Cantonese places that dominate California. Apparently this trend has reached Watsonville too. My cousin in town has been telling me about this new spot, Zen Dumpling, opened three months ago by a couple from Harbin, China. She’s been patronizing them weekly. Sensing that the cooking may be too authentic for the neighborhood, she’s trying to keep them in business.

I’ve not been in yet myself, but did snag a taste of some leftovers from when my mom visited. The chicken and chive dumplings (shui jiao) are handmade with thick, chewy wrappers and as authentic as can be. The noodles (la mian) are hand-pulled for a nice chew.

I also saw the remains of sweet and sour chicken and an odd fish salad that had battered and fried pieces of fish on top of baby salad greens. Neither looked very appetizing. My aunt indicated that some dishes may not be part of their native cuisine and they’re making them because the locals expect them.

My cousin also recommended the various pancake items, including the beef roll and the chive pancake. She suggested skipping the mushu pork. I hope some chowhounds will give it a try and report back.

Zen Dumpling
1116 Main St
Watsonville, CA
(831) 724-6689
Closed Wednesday

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  1. That sounds almost too good to be true! Hopefully I'll make a trip sometime this week to give this a try. Thanks for the tip!

    2 Replies
    1. re: bouncepass

      Thanks to Melanie for the tip. Went for lunch today. Had the pork, shrimp and chive dumplings, which indeed had relatively thick chewy skin which I enjoyed. The filling I thought was really spot on, very clear fresh flavors. I probably like Tong Dumpling in Cupertino Village a bit better but to even compare a Chinese restaurant in Santa Cruz County to quality establishments in the South Bay borders on a miracle. Another excellent dish was the stir fried bok choy, which was very well executed. We also had "chow mein" which is their stir-fried hand-pulled noodles. I'm pretty sure what I heard was the chef slapping the dough against the counter in the back. The stir-frying was quite good other than too-raw onions. The noodles themselves had decent bite, but a bit softer than the best South Bay versions (I'm rather partial to the dao-shiao mian at Chinjin Eastern House myself).

      We also tried their green onion pancake, which was the oddest version I've ever seen. It was unbelieveably thin, almost like a crepe so that the whole thing was crispy. Rather strange and I wouldn't order it again. Tried the vegetarian dumplings as well. The filling was a bit more bland than I'd like. Could have used some mushrooms and/or glass noodles to give it a bit more interest.

      I'll definitely be back. I go by there a few times a month and I will be making frequent stops for dumplings, trying more dishes off the menu and probably take some stir-fried noodles to go for future lunches. To me, this is the best Chinese place in Santa Cruz County.

      P.S. the sign out front now says open 7 days a week until 9 pm.

      1. re: bouncepass

        Opened your post with some trepidation and am so glad to read that the outcome was positive! Thanks for a real report. I hope others will try it too.

    2. For a number of reasons, haven't been around Chowhound much the last few years, but dropped by last week and seeing the mention of this place, not far from where I live, couldn't resist trying it out. So stopped by one evening last week to pick up some items to go.

      I also ordered the pork, shrimp and chive dumplings, but discovered when I got home that I had gotten what seemed to be simply shrimp and chive dumplings (which aren't actually on the menu). In any case, if there was any pork present, I couldn't locate it. As has been mentioned, they had nice thick chewy skins, but minus the pork (or at least what I imagined pork would add), the flavor of the filling was kind of meh.

      The green chives pancake consisted of what sounds like two of the odd green onion pancakes bouncepass mentions with chives in the middle. I also wouldn't order them again.

      Combo chow mein was great. Their wonderful noodles with beef, pork, chicken and shrimp, nicely stir-fried.

      Finally, and best (for me, anyway), was spicy sliced beef noodle soup. Once again the great noodles (packed separately from the soup to go), sliced beef (naturally), mushrooms, bok choy and a very flavorful (and really spicy) broth. I'd go back for this alone (or maybe to try the fish version).

      In any case, it's great having this so close to home and I hope to return to try other items. My concern is whether they'll be there long enough for me to make it through the menu. On the night I was there, I arrived to order at about 6:30pm and the restaurant was completely empty. When I came back in 15 minutes to pick up my order, there was one party of three people. This doesn't bode well.

      2 Replies
      1. re: ahclem

        How nice to see your handle on this board again!

        My cousin said the chive pancake was a half-moon. I guess I envisioned something closer to the chive pancake (folded over into a half-moon and crimped) at another restaurant as shown in this photo. But since I did not see or taste one, I can't say.

        My aunt said her favorite is the beef tendon noodle soup.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Hm... My chive pancake was a complete circle, about 6" in diameter, cut into four quarters. (Next time I'll take some photos.)

      2. Are there Manchurian (or Northeastern Chinese) items on the menu here? Do they have any sour or pickled cabbage dishes? Are they offering lots of different dumplings, including sour or pickled cabbage ones? How about some Lamb on the menu? Tiger Salad?

        The food of Manchuria is marked by hearty meals centered on meat and fresh and pickled vegetables. Their cuisine reflects influences from Mongolia, Korea, Russia and Japan. It is also known for strong flavors, a large variety of cold dishes. Garlic is used but not too much ginger.

        6 Replies
        1. re: scoopG

          Heheh, Scoop, thanks. Are you familiar with Watsonville? It's a small town, mostly agricultural, probably 80+% Latino, and the nearest authentic Chinese restaurant might more than 30 miles away. While I took that photo of the cover of the take-out menu, I failed to take the menu with me and have no recollection of the offerings. The two folks who have reported in will need to tackle your questions. And if these items aren't on the menu, maybe they can find out if they're available as daily specials or by advance order. Could you explain tiger salad please?

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Thanks, Melanie. I've attached here a 2010, NY Times piece by Julia Moskin which has a Tiger Salad recipe.

            NYT 2010 article:

            1. re: scoopG

              Hi Scoop

              The full menu is on display on the Yelp page. It doesn't look like there is any pickled vegetable dishes. The menu is organized into the following with any interesting dishes in parentheses.

              SPECIAL (dumplings and pancake)
              NOODLE & SOUP (beef tendon soup noodle)
              CHOW MEIN & FRIED RICE
              VEGETABLES (sweet corn with pine nuts)
              MEAT & VEGETABLE (sliced fish with mushrooms)
              APPETIZERS - for me, the most interesting section:
              fresh cucumber salad
              garlic black fungus with cucumber
              fresh cilantro bean curd noodle
              cold wide bean noodle
              fresh fish with salad
              fried chicken with salad
              chicken wings, salt & pepper tofu, etc.

              I hope to come back with a review soon but I'm a solo diner so I'll only be able to try a few things.

              I've had their chow mein and it was tasty with good wok hei but a tad salty. The chef came out for a smoke break and asked me how I liked his cooking. He seemed to take much pride in his work (a good sign). They told me they make their dumplings dough and fillings fresh everyday.

              1. re: seamunky

                Thanks seamunky! Those appetizers do look good.

              2. re: scoopG

                Melanie, are those the sweet/sour chicken and fish salad in the third photo?

                1. re: seamunky

                  Yes, my cousin sent me that photo of the lunch. They got take-out and plated it at home.

          2. Found these two discount coupons online, good through April 23, 2013.

            These need to be printed out (not mobile view). Sounds like they're hurting for business.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Melanie Wong

              I met a guy last week who lives in Watsonville and is from Shenyang so I told him about this place. He got all excited til I looked it up on Yelp and found out it's closed :(

              Anything authentic on/near the peninsula or should I just have my parents bring me food when they visit? We may have to invest in a chest freezer for dumplings ;)

              1. re: PattyC

                I'm so sad to hear this.

                Chinese is not something I've been looking for on the Monterey Peninsula frankly. And I'll express my sorrow again that my go-to place, China Chili that had some excellent Hunan dishes, closed in Seaside a couple years ago.

                If you're up for a hunt, I would poke around the Seaside and Marina areas. I recall the owner of China Chili telling me that he added some Shandong style dishes to his menu because of the preponderance of Korean-Chinese competitors. I have been to the Salinas branch of Chef Lee's a couple times and found the gan pong ji worth ordering.

                There's another Korean-Chinese place in Marina that shares the parking lot with Grocery Outlet. I've often wondered about the food there. On Sunday morning there's a nice farmers market and that might be a good time to visit Marina.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  I hadn't either when we were only vacationing here. Thanks for the suggestions. I got spoiled living in the SGV for so long that I never learned to cook Chinese. Maybe it's time to start.

                  1. re: PattyC

                    Always a good strategy. The Marina farmers market has some nice Asian vegetables.