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RESTAURANT REVIEW: Dumpling Inn

The 10 tables at Dumpling Inn are almost always full.
The 10 tables at Dumpling Inn are almost always full.
Photo by Brandon Hernandez

My love affair with beer is anything but a covert affair. It all started 14 years ago when some friends of mine invited me to one of San Diego’s most storied craft beer bars, O’Brien’s Pub in Kearny Mesa. To this day, that’s still my favorite spot in town after a busy week and kick back with a few friends and a few brews. While I’m a fan of OB’s garlic fries (which, like the good memories of time well wasted with drinking buddies, stay with me well into the next day), ever since the first time I stumbled out of OB, I’ve consistently meandered Frogger-style across Convoy to a most delicious detox spot for dinner. That sacred safe harbor is Dumpling Inn, a long-tenured Chinese restaurant with affordable prices and, above all, delicious dishes packed with intense flavors.

They don’t have a website and they don’t need one thanks to a stout legion of loyal patrons such as myself who keep coming back for dishes like a most delicious hot and sour soup. It doesn't smack you in the face with bracing acidity or with blow-your-head-off spice. In fact, the subtlety of flavors in this soup is what makes it better than the standard, too hot/too sour versions of this classic. You can actually taste the broth-plumped sponge-like mushrooms, a bonus considering how often tasteless or overshadowed ‘shrooms serve as little more than textural garnish in the culinary world. Dumpling Inn’s hot and sour is more an earthy canvas for diners to mold to their personal tastes with the vinegar, chili oil and chili paste on the condiment carousel centerpiece. It’s an exercise that’s both fun and tasty. I personally love kicking up the Skoville reading and, by the time I’m done, my bowl typically looks like a crimson tofu massacre.

I almost hate to say it, but the dumplings at Dumpling Inn are probably my least favorite item on the extensive menu. Don't get me wrong, they're great for what they are and patrons love these little pork- and shrimp-stuffed pillows. To me, they’re a bit dry and crave condiments, something supplementary to moisten them up and enhance their flavor. Think about it. When's the last time you ate shrimp with no sauce or pork without at least a bit of jus to moisten it up? Having those meats wrapped in what is essentially pasta dough leaves one longing for something more. You can always resort to the aforementioned carousel, which also includes soy sauce, and that would be just fine, but I’ve come up with a much better alternative that’s every bit as effective. I cut the dumplings in half and submerge them in that heavenly hot and sour soup, then wait a minute or so and pluck them out with my chopsticks. Of course, if you’re all about plain dumplings or nothing at all, try out one of the steamed varieties or head to Dragon’s Den in the East Village, a spot owned by the same individual behind Dumpling Inn that offers similar varieties of dumplings featuring dough with better texture and flavor as well as fillings that are more aggressively seasoned.

On the entrée front, I’ve had many and can report that there’s nary a clunker in the bunch. Even items that aren’t quite spot-on from a cultural perspective, like a plum-based kung pao sauce that’s more sweet than spicy (but can be had with a bigger chili bite on request), or are made to appeal to the tastes of non-Asian patrons, pack enough vibrant flavor to curb the desire to debate their authenticity. It’s the originality of that kung pao that makes it one of the best things on the menu. Once you get over the fact that it's nothing like you expected, you'll find it's utterly delicious. I like the simple kung pao chicken best (especially at lunch where the price and portion size are lower), though they do feature a kung pao sea bass that is a tender and delicious cult fave among regulars (but in my opinion, a bit too delicate to stand up to the rich sauce). There’s also a mixed kung pao seafood dish which includes sea bass as well as shrimp and squid that offers more texture (including unpalatable chewiness from the squid), but earns the bronze in this KP trio. Relish the fact that the chicken is the cheapest and the best and order it instead.

A protein I’ve never had a bad experience with at Dumpling Inn is lamb. It’s not a meat that’s prevalent in Chinese cuisine and they use off-cuts that don’t look like much, but they come across nicely in several dishes including a zesty, hearty lamb with Chinese green. But the best of the mutton bunch is lamb with scallion, which is little more than those two items stir-fried together but tastes very much like a good lamb stew minus the broth. Either dish serves as a good red meat dish on a menu that is largely comprised of poultry and seafood. And speaking of seafood, there are a number of great shrimp dishes to be had here. My favorite is the honey shrimp, which is sweet but not cloying and always perfectly crispy. As you bite into it, your palate is tantalized by that sweetness, which is instantly offset by the savoriness of the plump juicy shrimp. Add a dab of chili paste to find your way to sweet-spicy crustacean heaven.

Other standards like orange chicken, beef with broccoli and lo mein are here…and they're mighty good, too. Honestly, it's hard to go wrong at Dumpling Inn. The menu is tried and true and, thanks to the repetition of pumping out the same dishes to a restaurant that’s almost always at capacity (with a waiting list nearly as long as the menu), the kitchen and food are extremely consistent. Attention is paid to every single dish and the fact that this tiny outpost with just 10 tables and a handful of staff can thrive in the back corner of a mini mall in a half-mile corridor with the highest concentration of authentic Asian restaurants in the entire county speaks volumes of just how special it is.

Details »
  • City: San Diego
  • Phone: (858) 268-9638
  • Name: Dumpling Inn
  • Address: 4619 Convoy, Suite F