Dumpling Nirvana: Dough Zone


When Din Tai Fung came into town, the Seattle area suddenly was made aware of how superb xiao long bao can be. There have been versions of it served by restaurants in these parts, but never the billowy, savory, soup-filled dumplings that the great restaurant from Taiwan made. Almost immediately, the crowds descended on Lincoln Square in Bellevue where Din Tai Fung set up shop. It became almost impossible to get seated right away, a wait of an hour or so not uncommon. The opening of another branch in University Village in Seattle eased the situation somewhat, but the long waits are still there. Along with the high-profile, upscale location came high prices. XLB aficionados began to wonder if they could ever find dumplings this good at more reasonable prices anywhere else in the area.

Two years ago, Dough Zone began business in a strip mall behind Crossroads Shopping Center. It took over the spot vacated by El Comal, the Salvadorean restaurant that branched out to the Eastside from Seattle but never got traction there. On the menu was xiao long bao, not to mention all manner of dumplings, noodles and pancakes. It didn’t take long for word to get out: their stuff was good, REALLY GOOD. Rumor has it that someone associated with the DTF enterprise in Bellevue opened this place up. If that’s true, then the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. DZ became so popular that it too generated its own long lines. To relieve the pressure, a second location opened in Bellevue in the Fred Meyer lot, right off NE 24th. A third location in Issaquah is currently being planned. We went to the new location.

doughzone1

There is no menu, just a small order sheet on which you indicate the desired quantity of items next to their names, just like you do at DTF (though it has a fancy, glossy menu with pictures). This practice is becoming more commonplace at dim sum restaurants, too.

Let’s start with XLB. Dough Zone’s (unhelpfully and confusingly called juicy pork buns) has the same, impossibly thin wrapper twisted around the savory, aromatic ground pork filling. The filling is superbly flavored, but the real test of xiao long bao is the encasement of soup (or broth) that should ideally be hot enough to almost burn one’s mouth and pack a lot of flavor for such a small quantity. DZ’s does this with flying colors. What does this mean with respect to Din Tai Fung? It is its equal if not better, hard as this might be for DTF fans to imagine. The only thing missing was shredded fresh ginger to go along with the soy sauce and black vinegar, but, hey, that’s a minor quibble. I rate this at the top of my list (☆☆☆☆).

Juicy pork buns (xiao long bao)

Juicy pork buns (xiao long bao)

But, this was not all. Steamed Shrimp and Pork Dumpling was just as fantastic (☆☆☆☆). Rather than minced, the shrimp was left whole combined with ground pork, both surrounded by a wrapper a la jiaozi or gyoza, but with the shrimp tail artfully poking up from the top. These, too, had a flavorful broth inside, if not as plentiful as XLB. All I can say is, magnificent.

Steamed shrimp and pork dumplings

Steamed shrimp and pork dumplings

We also sampled two of their soup noodles. Noodles with Szechuan Sauce (☆☆☆) exhibited the málà duality that typifies dishes from that province, though nothing as intense as anything coming out of Spiced‘s kitchen. Reddish-orange in hue, the broth was mouth-numbing from Szechuan peppercorns and spicy from dried chiles. And it’s very savory, with no meat of any kind, only green onions and spinach. The noodles also had a nice firmness.

Noodle with Szechuan Sauce

Noodle with Szechuan Sauce

Under ‘Chef Specialties,’ Noodles in House Special (☆☆½) mixes shredded cucumbers, bean sprouts, egg, carrots, cilantro and dried tofu, not unlike Vietnamese bún in presentation when it comes out of the kitchen. At first, it looked like a cold noodle dish, but underneath the vegetable topping was a hot sauce. Immediately, I smelled something funky like shrimp paste but different, an off-odor that translated to an equally funky taste. It didn’t appeal to me, whatever it was.

Noodles in House Special

Noodles in House Special

Other appealing-looking dishes whizzed by in the hands of the waiters serving other tables. I wonder what that was? Wow, look at that! Aside from a few duplications of Din Tai Fung’s menu, there were items that are not. These will have to be tried on subsequent visits, that’s for sure.

Update (4-3-15): My wife and I returned for another lunch visit.

We’re convinced that DZ excels at steamed dumplings. Crab meat buns (☆☆☆☆), which are filled more with ground pork than crab, are the virtual twins of xiao long bao. They’re filled with a delicious soup that literally bursts in your mouth when you bite into them, piping hot when they arrive at your table. Externally, they are indistinguishable from XLB. These are crazy good. I’m still mystified by why they’re listed under ‘Buns’ on the menu.

Crab meat buns

Crab meat buns

We ordered two different soups. They’re small enough that it’s possible to order other things from the menu without gorging yourselves. Of the two, pork wonton soup (☆☆½) had clean, muted flavors, tasting of seaweed, with small nuggets of ground pork wrapped in wonton skins. Hot and sour noodle (☆☆☆½) lies between a soup and brothy noodles in presentation. The broth or sauce, however you want to classify it, was spicy and vinegary, but, man, was it good. Trying to slurp up a reasonable amount of slippery bean thread noodles while trying to carry on a conversation really became difficult, almost comical, since they seemed to be infinite in length. Fried soy beans gave this salty dish a nice crunchy texture.

Hot & sour noodles

Hot & sour noodles

Pork wonton soup

Pork wonton soup

We also had to try something we saw float by in a waiter’s hands the last time. Beef pancake rolls (☆☆☆) were pan-fried rolls like enchiladas rolled around slices of five-spice-flavored beef and chopped cilantro. They seemed like they could use some sort of dipping sauce.

Beef pancake rolls

Beef pancake rolls

Dough Zone
14625 NE 24th St, Ste 4B
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.641.5555

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