A couple of weeks ago I was having a bit of a rough day. Apparently, our friend Julie was too. She happened to be in the neighborhood for an assignment and texted me about lunch. Since we usually only eat out for dinner and hardly ever for lunch, I stopped by Hooker’s to ask for some recommendations. I figured a man who’s able to produce such orgasmic caramels probably knew of some tasty joints.
Following Hooker’s directions we ended up at Little Saigon Café, a relatively new hole in the wall restaurant on Larkin street (at Ellis) serving Chinese dumplings, pancakes, and kabobs. Their food is well-known to visitors of the Stonestown Farmers’ Market, which they’ve been frequenting for over a year under the name Happy Dumplings, as well as a few other events such as the Cherry Blossom Festival.
This little cafe is a husband and wife operation (who, by the way met at a club, in what looks like a theme in restaurant couples, ahem). James is the public face hosting and serving, and Linda is the dumpling master who single-handedly manages the steamy kitchen. Until recently they had a partner who for some reason parted ways with them. They were also serving some Vietnamese specialties (such as banh mi sandwiches). This departure of the sandwiches was probably due to the departure of the partner, as I don’t recall seeing any in the current menu. Now their main focus is on dumplings and pot stickers, Shandong-style. Apparently the more accurate term would be ‘water-fried buns’, as they’re called in Chinese.
Since water-fried buns doesn’t sound terribly appealing in English, they went with pot stickers. The main difference is that these ones are lightly fried in oil once they’re steamed, right after the water that steams them has evaporated. They make them filled with delicious pork combined with cabbage, dikon, chives and possibly other things I didn’t write down. The pork ones were just superb, that’s why I don’t remember if they had other meats, such as the one pictured in this delicious closeup.
James confirmed that these are their most popular menu items, although closely followed by the similar but cooked slightly-different dumplings. I’m not sure about the details, but I think the main difference is that these ones are just steamed and not fried. Also, as far as I remember, they were a bit smaller. But equally delicious.
Linda makes all these little tasty buns from scratch, apparently with a low-gluten wheat flour from Korea that is not so easy to find. She makes them Shandong-style because she’s originally from, wait for it, the Shandong province! This is a province in northern China, next to the border with Korea (hence the Korean flour). And according to James, there aren’t very many restaurants around here serving the specialties from that region, which in part is the reason why they started their business.
The dumplings/pot stickers/water-fried buns are only part of the story, though. It seems that they ended up cooking those almost accidentally, as when they started their food business they had quite a different focus: lamb kabobs from Western China (yes, dear tender readers, in case you didn’t know kabobs originated in China). Apparently those are popular in special events and festivals in some parts of China, and Team JL have a friend in LA who has a thriving business selling them for parties – mostly among the Chinese community. So, realizing the lack of Chinese skewers in the Bay area, that’s what they were going to sell. They still sell them (you can see on in the right corner of the first picture in this post, which Julie said was really good). But now they’re famous for their dumpling talents. And believe me, it’s well-deserved.
Linda has many specialties, though. She also makes fabulous pancakes, which are of course very different from American pancakes. They are fried and filled with things like squash (pictured here) or chives, in a way that reminds me of a flat empanada.
Last week I went to Little Saigon Café again for dinner with humin. We had spent the day before at a Spanish wedding outside of town, drinking red wine from noon til dusk like there was no tomorrow. So we were feeling like crap for the next 24 hours (the 30s ain’t the new 20’s, lemme tell you) and hadn’t eaten almost anything except aspirin. It was time for some pot sticker goodness. And although the portions are huge, we still hadn’t had enough after gorging on two servings and a chive pancake. So we asked James to recommend something else. Here’s what he brought:
These fresh noodles with pork were just heavenly–exactly what our hungover asses needed. They usually make the noodles themselves, but as it was almost closing time when we showed up they had run out – they used packaged fresh noodles instead. Still delicious though.
Hey, but do you know what else is great about Little Saigon Café? Their prices:
So now we’re addicted to this place every time we’re in need of some comforting food. And I have Hooker to blame.
Pictures not credited to Julie Michelle are by Tenderblog