8 places to get delicious dumplings

Grab your utensils and let’s get dippin’.
plates of dumplings
Chen's Dumpling House (Photo by Nikki Hansen)

Consider, if you will, the humble dumpling. Like the taco, the sandwich and the pizza, it’s a blank culinary canvas, a flour-based package into which almost any ingredients you can imagine can be tucked, then (in the case of the dumpling, at least) steamed, fried or boiled to tender perfection. Cultures from around the world have embraced this universe of possibilities, and thanks to a fine set of purveyors right here in Madison, you can take your own world tour of delicious dumplings. Grab your utensils and let’s get dippin’.

Places with asterisks are open for delivery or takeout.

Chen’s Dumpling House*
Tucked quietly into the heart of State Street, Chen’s leans into the traditional role of the Chinese dumpling — or jiaozi — in that country’s illustrious history. Who knew that dumplings looked like Han Dynasty-era gold ingots? Or that eating them supposedly brings good fortune? The go-to here is the Xiao Long Bao, a six-pack of tender steamed pork dumplings that come to life when paired with a zingy ginger-vinegar sauce. Seven other offerings dot the menu, including several vegetable-based options and crabmeat soup dumplings, for those looking to warm up with broth-filled dumplings. 505 State St., 709-5888

Dumpling Haus

dumplings in a tin

Dumpling Haus (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

Chef Jenny Yin puts a ridiculous amount of craft and hands-on care into her dumplings and baozi, which are pleated little buns leavened with sugar and stuffed with everything from the traditional pork and napa cabbage to a taco bao punched up with beef or pork, cilantro, onions and hoisin sauce. Yin has had more than three decades to hone her skills, and it shows in every bite. Best of all, if your timing is right, you can watch her create her soon-to-be-steamed masterpieces yourself. Tip: Save room for dessert. Steamed bao filled with Nutella or creamy egg custard are not to be missed. 540 N. Midvale Blvd., 661-4287

Himal Chuli*
Sometimes it’s about what’s inside the dumpling. Sometimes it’s about the sauce. With Himal Chuli’s take on the Tibetan/Nepalese delicacy known as momocho, or momo, it’s about both. The steamed momos at this State Street staple are filled with a spicy peanut paste and a tomato-coriander sauce in order to create a filling entree that’ll have you reordering several times a week. In a sense, it’s like a Himalayan version of Sa-Bai Thong’s seeda longsong — a steamed broccoli dish with peanut sauce — and traditional Italian pasta and sauce. Now that’s worldly. 318 State St., 251-9225

Paul’s Pel’meni*

pauls pel'meni dumplings

Paul’s Pel’meni (Photo by Nicole Peaslee)

Paul Schwoerer understands the magic necessary to turn the basic into the unforgettable. He offers exactly three types of Russian-style pel’meni at his cozy Gilman Street locale, and the made-from-scratch wraps are simply filled with ground beef, potato or a combination of both. The toppings are where the pyrotechnics sizzle: Devotees of Paul’s Pel’meni know to opt for “The Works,” a delicious combo of curry, chili sauce, butter and cilantro served with a side of sour cream. And be particular about your utensil: “Eat ’em with a spoon so you can get a little of that sauce,” Schwoerer says. “That’s the way to do it.” 414 W. Gilman St., 442-3234

SoHo Gourmet Cuisines*

two plates of dumplings

SoHo Gourmet Cuisines (Photo courtesy of SoHo Gourmet Cuisines)

Pork is the traditional filling for dumplings, but it was a beef dumpling — the kind his mom and grandma used to make when he was a kid — that inspired Rocky So to create the dumpling section of his Fitchburg bistro’s extensive menu. In fact, SoHo Gourmet Cuisines splits the difference evenly between traditional dumplings and Asian fusion options. That beef dumpling is served with a zingy black vinegar and ginger sauce that takes the dumpling up several levels. Then there’s what So calls the “Midwest twist” options: Start with the Hot Chick, a near-perfect dumpling distillation of spicy buffalo wings complete with carrots and celery inside the dumpling (no blue cheese) and a divinely spiced dipping sauce. And what could be more Midwestern than the mac and cheese dumpling, which is a pasta-filled concoction — holy carbohydrates, Batman! — that gets its flavor from a smooth and creamy cheese dipping sauce. (“We live in Wisconsin — how could you not do mac and cheese?” asks So.) Keep your eye on SoHo’s menu, because the dumpling specials (think things like apple pie dumplings) would be a shame to miss. “Dumplings are an open canvas, a way to try different ingredients and do whatever you want.” That’s the kind of creativity we’ll dip into anytime. 2990 Cahill Main, Fitchburg, 960-4011

Tavernakaya and Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar*

plate of dumplings

Tavernakaya (Photo by Mai Zong Vang)

These sister restaurants — one on Capitol Square, one on Willy Street — offer both sides of the Asian dumpling experience. At Tavernakaya you’ll find small plates of crispy, pan-fried pork and cabbage gyoza just crying to be dipped in a sublime ginger-soy sauce. Swing by Umami and you can experience the Chinese side, choosing from the traditional (a pork and chives dumpling packed with ginger), a vegan option or a chicken dumpling with shiitake mushrooms accompanied by your choice of a soy vinegar, a spicy sauce or a sweet sauce. There are no bad choices here — just hone your chopstick skills and get dipping. Tavernakaya: 27 E. Main St., 286-1548; Umami: 923 Williamson St., 819-6319

Kingdom Restaurant’s Fufu*

fufu from Kingdom

Fufu from Kingdom Restaurant (Photo by John Hart, State Journal)

Mahamadou Tunkara knows who the experts are. It’s the ex-Peace Corps members, the missionaries and the military veterans who’ve spent time in Africa. They’re the ones who come in craving the unique taste of the African fufu that Tunkara serves daily at his Kingdom Restaurant, which is camped in a strip mall on Northport Drive. And they’re the ones who aren’t daunted by the messy-yet-delicious experience. Fufu is a traditional dish in countries like Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Tunkara’s native Gambia. This unique take on the dumpling experience is created by boiling and mashing either yams, green plantains or cassava, a root vegetable. “It’s similar to making mashed potatoes,” Tunkara explains. But the dumpling is only one-third of the equation. Once you’ve got the sticky dough on your plate, it’s time to set those utensils aside and break out the napkins. “The best way to eat it is with your hands,” Tunkara says. “Not with a fork or spoon. You take the dumpling, make it into a little ball and dip it in the stew.” The stew can be made with okra, but at Kingdom, a tomato-based sauce covers the meat. The unexpectedly tart taste of the sticky dumpling — it sure doesn’t taste like mashed potatoes — isn’t for everyone, but those who love it are some of Tunkara’s most devoted customers. “Anybody who tries it is instantly interested in the rest of the African dishes on the menu,” says Tunkara. “It’s definitely something different.” 1865 Northport Drive, 286-1238

Aaron R. Conklin covers dining and theater for Madison Magazine.