Maybe, when it’s all boiled down and accounted for, there are two types of restaurants. The first is as unlike home cooking as is financially manageable — otherwise, why bother dining out, right? Impeccable service, wine bible and cocktail list, foams, microgreens, ingredients that you can’t spell, pronounce, or parse, and a grand sense of ceremony that says, “Here is why you’re paying $100 a plate tonight.” The second is the inverse: It’s inviting, and it’s comfortable. Everything you eat tastes like a human being made it in a caring way.
The newly opened Dumpling in Minneapolis certainly falls into the second category. The restaurant opened at the end of 2016 as a logical next step for its team of Bunbob Chhun and James Munson, who have been running Dumpling as a farmers market and pop-up venture since 2012.
Wedged into a former Chinese-American dive on Minnehaha, Dumpling is cozy and cool, a small dining room that is attracting an audibly enthusiastic neighborhood clientele. The menu is intelligently and deliberately small, too: eight starters, nine entrees, five low-alcohol cocktails, and a total of six wines and beers. The sense of focus is admirable, and it pays dividends on the plate.
At the top of the appetizer list, not surprisingly, sit the Crispy Dumplings ($7 for five). We tried the pork variety on two occasions, and they were at that sweet spot of crunchy and pliable on the outside and rich yet light on the interior. It’s easy for a dumpling to go leaden or lifeless, but these pack a surplus of flavor without drowning you in fat and carbs. They’re well-seasoned, too — salty but not aggressively so. If you’ve never had a fresh, handmade dumpling, think carefully before eating these. They’ll ruin you for an awful lot of the dumplings available out there.
We also tried the Seasonal Dumplings ($7) with winter squash and greens. The two filling elements were not combined into a single mixture, so the diner could enjoy their individual tastes and textures. The squash was sweet and dense, and the greens provided an earthy bite. The coconut-ginger dipping sauce, applied judiciously, boosted the flavor to a higher level. Even though the pastry had a nice crunch, this time it erred on the side of softness. The edges of the dumpling were crisp, but the expanses in between could have used a few moments longer in the fryer.
Our Cream Cheese Wontons ($7) were the best we’ve tried, full stop. They packed a real allium kick that strongly suggested the experience of eating a just-toasted onion bagel with a schmear of melty cream cheese. Like a good Jucy Lucy, these things are volatile — chew carefully, because the skins are delicate and the filling is hot.
The Dumpling version of the classic Banh Mi Sandwich ($10) gets a number of things right: The baguette is perfectly light, chewy, and crisp, the pulled pork is flavorful (and doesn’t get swamped by the bread or pickled veg), and the overall balance of sandwich toppings was on point. We wrote recently about the boom of banh mi and ramen around here, and Dumpling is contributing positively to the trend. These are banh mi that’ll stand up to their peers all around town.
Our Ramen ($14) was solid, with a not overly salty or fatty broth tasting of cinnamon and star anise. A mound of standard-issue kinked noodles lay in repose beneath the broth and a neatly segmented assortment of classic ingredients including a soft-boiled egg and what tasted like the same tender, fully flavored pulled pork that adorned the banh mi. Tori Ramen’s duck ramen remains our current favorite, but Dumpling’s will certainly do in a pinch.
The Rice Bowl ($8) with tofu ($2 additional) was loaded with vegetables, but we missed a truly succulent umami flavor. There was an assortment of steamed vegetables as well as several types of mildly pickled vegetables, including a kimchi. The fried egg was somewhat stiffer than we would have liked. The grilled tofu was lightly seasoned, and perhaps the two meat choices (brisket or fried chicken, $5 additional) would have given the dish the intensity it lacked.
On the cocktail front, the Kalimocho (a Basque spin on tinto de verano, aka red wine plus Fanta) may take our prize for oddest drink of the past 12 months. The ingredients in this blend of red wine, coconut cream, and Coca Cola, with a red licorice twist should clash into oblivion, but the whole package worked. How, precisely, may be beyond mortal understanding. We also had a tasty Sauvignon blanc ($9) from the brief wine list.
Dumpling may be the poster child for the way (much) of the independent dining scene is heading right now. It was built up from the grassroots, its dishes are unpretentious and inviting, and its food is made with self-evident care and skill. It’s an asset to the still-underserved Howe neighborhood, but it’d be an asset just about anywhere.
Jane Rosemarin contributed to this review.
Asian Bistro in Howe, Minneapolis
4004 Minnehaha Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55406
OWNERS / CHEFS: Bunbob Chhun and James Munson
Sun-Mon 4-10 p.m.
Wed-Thu 4-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat 4 p.m.-midnight
BAR: Beer and wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $8-$16
NOISE LEVEL: Quiet
PARKING: Ample street parking