On St. Marks, The Joys Of Dumplings

Dumpling ManMolly O’Toole Dumpling Man, 100 St. Marks Place.

Without dumplings, life would scarcely be worth living.

Like sweets made from boiled milk, sugar and something-or-other, dishes made from dough formed into a pocket and filled with meat or vegetables or soup give the people of East Asia, South America and Russia, to name only a neighborhood or two, something to look forward to. The same is true for the heterogeneous peoples of the East Village, a food-grazing and cheap-eats micro-climate extremely conducive to the production and distribution of dumplings, whether in Ukrainian, Mexican, Venezuelan or, above all, Chinese form.

In this regard, I am most partial to The Dumpling Man, a takeout and counter place on St. Marks Place between First Avenue and Avenue A, where the diner can watch a lineup of silent, dexterous Chinese chefs assemble his or her order before actually consuming it. The Dumpling Man, in the great East Village tradition, makes one thing only, and makes it with great care. You can get grilled or steamed shrimp, chicken, pork, vegetable or soup dumplings. Lucas Lin, the moon-faced, bespectacled owner, is enough of a New Yorker that he gets bored without a little variety, and so usually offers a special as well. Asparagus dumplings haven’t gone over too well, he concedes. On the other hand, water chestnut dumplings — prepared only when juicy water chestnuts are available in the market — have been a hit.

Lucas was working as the New York correspondent for The United Daily of Taiwan when he saw a “For Rent” sign on a little storefront near his Ninth Street apartment. The Taiwanese, Lucas freely admits, are “obsessive about food,” and he decided to satisfy an obsession of his own. He had always loved sitting at the counter at sushi restaurants, watching the chef work. At dumpling spots, the cooks worked in the back, and could be plucking pre-made dumplings from the fridge, for all the customers knew. “I wanted to put the kitchen in front,” says Lucas, who was sitting next to me at the counter while I scalded the roof of my mouth on one piping hot shrimp dumpling after another, “and everyone said, ‘You’ll regret it, because you can’t cut corners. It’s too expensive.’” He could have bought a machine to cut the wrappers — the dough. Instead, the chefs make the wrappers by hand behind the counter; and they make them all day long, not the night before.

A Dumpling Man dumpling is pillowy, soft and supple. “We have the expression in China, ‘to bounce in your mouth,’” said Lucas. “That’s just what we’re trying to do.” The Dumpling Man advantage, Lucas said, is not only that the dumplings are made fresh but that he uses the ‘hot noodle’ method traditionally favored in Beijing and elsewhere in the north, rather than the cold-water system apparently common with Brand X dumplings. The chefs mix the flour with boiling water, which makes for a sticky dough, more difficult to work with than cold-water dough.

The middle-aged woman on the side of the counter, Xie, was filling wrappers with chopped vegetables and crimping them closed. I asked Lucas to ask Xie if she had any trade secrets. She laughed; being interviewed was not part of the job description. “Everyone has a different touch,” Xie said. “The touch of the fingertips is very important.” It takes a special gift to fashion the delicate knob which holds a soup dumpling closed. Lucas got up to ask Miss Lai, working further down the line at the grill and the steamer, to make me a steamed pumpkin dumpling. It was almost candied in its sweetness, the orange glowing faintly through the wrapper.

The Dumpling ManMolly O’Toole Wong Quan Chen makes dumplings at the Dumpling Man.

Lucas freely acknowledges that few of his customers demand the level of care he himself insists upon. Some are so philistine as to ask why his wrappers aren’t as thin and translucent as those Brand X ones. Answer: because they’re not machine-cut, and they’re not made with rice flour. Lucas does make a few concessions to the ignorant. He offers sauces with goofy names, like Monster Sauce, a won ton sauce he’s tweaked for sweetness. “Is that how they eat dumplings in China?” I asked.

Absolutely not, Lucas said. The correct condiment is vinegar. “Steamed pork dumpling with vinegar,” he said, looking faintly dreamy. “Yum.”

Dumpling Man, 100 St. Marks Place, 212-505-2121. www.dumplingman.com

This article has been changed to correct an error; an earlier version misstated the restaurant’s location.