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Monday, November 18, 2013

Crawling for dumplings

Remember the great donut crawl? AKA the disappointing donut crawl? I'm happy to report that crawl #2, the great dumpling crawl, was a far more successful jaunt.

The list of candidates was, to say the least, vast. Google "best dumplings in NYC" and you'll see what I mean. The images alone are enough to get you on the next N train to Canal Street (at least that's how I get there). After extensive research, figlio minore and I narrowed the field down to four candidates. For a little variety (and to honor my ethnic heritage) we decided to start with a bit of a left-field choice:

Veselka, on Second Avenue and Ninth Street
Veselka's varenyky before
Begun as a candy shop and newsstand in 1954, Veselka (which means "rainbow") is one of the few remnants of what once was a thriving Ukrainian community in the East Village. Like Katz's and Joe's Shanghai and the White Horse and many other old New York favorites that have managed to survive, Veselka has made its way into the guide books, and instead of hearing Ukrainian spoken at the tables, you can hear French and Swedish and all the other languages of the folks who flock to New York. Despite the touristy crowd, the place is still authentic -- still run by the same family, still serving bigos (Ukrainian hunter's stew), stuffed cabbage, blintzes, borscht, and amazing varenyky -- Ukrainian dumplings, with your choice of filling: potato, cheese, meat, spinach and cheese, sauerkraut and mushroom, sweet potato, or arugula and goat cheese (okay, not all the fillings are so traditional). We chose potato, of course, and they were good. Really good. Two forks up good. With a little sour cream and applesauce, it was definitely my favorite dumpling of the day. But that might be my ancestors calling -- after all, my maternal grandparents were born in Kiev. Varenyky are in my blood. And also, as often as possible, my tummy.
Veselka's varenyky after

Two forks up!
Vanessa's on Eldridge Street
Some ambulation was required to work through the varenyky before ingesting further food, so we walked to our next stop: Vanessa's Dumpling House on Eldridge Street. Often cited as the best dumplings in NYC, we were excited to try them out. We picked chive and pork boiled dumplings, eight for two dollars, a price we thought was pretty hard to beat (just wait). Despite the amazing reputation, we were a little disappointed. The dumplings were very watery, maybe the fault of the boiling, but there wasn't much flavor. Although for that price, they were pretty darn good. In the end, however, we decided to only go with one fork up.

Vanessa's dumplings before
Although we didn't love them, we still somehow managed to clean our plate

But only one fork up for Vanessa

Prosperity just down the block
Just down the street from Vanessa, Prosperity is easy to overlook. It's just a storefront with a tiny two-oerson counter and an equally tiny menu. Soup, dumplings, pancakes...actually when you compare the size of the menu with the size of the place it's pretty impressive that they can turn out so many dishes with so little space. Bonus points for menu-variety-to-square-footage ratio. Additional bonus points for price -- one dollar (!) for an order of pork and chive dumplings. Yes, one dollar. And they were good. Delicious. Definitely two forks up.

No plate, no need...

The after shot

Two forks up for sure

Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street
We wanted to include a sampling of xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings. They're a family favorite, and we regularly visit Joe's Shanghai in both Flushing and Manhattan and even his Ginger incarnation and have never been disappointed. But we were curious -- was there a rival to Joe's awesomely delicious buns? Research revealed a strong contender: Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street. We headed over for our last stop and ordered the pork variety. We were pretty full by this time, but we persevered in the cause of a thorough mission. And I'm happy to report that the soup dumplings were excellent -- no better than Joe's but maybe (hard to say without a side-by-side comparison) just as good. My only complaint was the lighting -- a strange bright pink force field that turns everything alien, including the food. So Shanghai gets two chopsticks up for dumplings, no chopsticks up for ambience.

Weird pink lighting that turns the food radiant, but not in a good way

Irradiated soup dumplings
Two (or is it four?) chopsticks up!  

After ingesting all those dumplings (in the name of science!) we were just about crawling, or maybe rolling, home. But the mission continues, and there is no shortage of "best dumplings" to visit. What are yours?

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