Inn Good Company
“What do you mean there isn’t any good Chinese Food in San Diego?” Chef Luz shot me one of her sideways stares that could slice a man in two and then softened just as quickly, blinking her eyes in a kitty-like slant and motioned, “Let’s go.”
I could always trust my cake-baking, potaco-making pal for food advice and this time it landed us at a non-descript strip mall in Kearny Mesa at the Dumpling Inn.
Patrons were lined up outside like on-deck batters, peering into this sardine can of a space, just waiting for their turn at the plate as we snagged the last of only about 10 tables, inches from the swinging double doors of the kitchen, where our salty, seasoned waitress crashed through looking like she was about to spit nails.
“Drinks?” she seethed, daring us to be thirsty. The answer of water and tea made her bristle all the more, but her visible annoyance only endeared me to her and brought back memories of the cranky diner waitresses from my Jersey youth, whose curmudgeonly antics were all part of the charm. But she wasn’t the only salty and sour presence greeting us. The table spun a basket of vinegar, soy sauce and chili paste for personalized dipping preferences.
Pot stickers: This is usually what you think of when you hear “dumplings”, also known as gyoza (oh boyza!), fried up crispy, browned and glistening like a bronzed God stuffed to porky perfection.
Xiao Long Bao: Just as I was about to take a bite of the Xiao Long Bao, my chopsticks got swatted back as Chef Luz handed me a spoon to hold beneath, explaining that these were soup dumplings. Meaning = broth is added as part of the filling in a gelatinous state during preparation and liquefies inside when heated - genius! This meat-filled, bite-sized bowl of soup was worthy of applause and complete with finely sliced ginger streamers to top it all off.
I couldn’t help eyeballing neighboring tables that flaunted other “Inn wins” like the mammoth bowls of broth steaming and full to the brim with riptides of churning meats and veggies. I’d heard murmurings about the sea bass with black bean sauce and side orders of jellyfish, but Chef Luz finished by picking the dan-dan noodles, which immediately caused our waitress (now known as the Soup Dumpling Nazi) to stop writing. She exasperatedly asked, “Have you tried it before?”, and sighed at Luz’s nod before begrudgingly bringing a bowl of noodles that probably weighed as much as her.
Dan Dan Noodles: Dense noodles were made heavier by a sesame paste coating every piece with a consistency similar to peanut butter. I understood the Soup Dumpling Nazi’s questioning once we got it because this wasn’t for the faint of heart. Within the layer of potent paste came a charge of chili for an underlying spice that made the taste-buds sweat before the crunchy cool down of sliced cucumber.
Its hearty, stick-to-your-rib goodness stayed with you like Mom's Sunday dinner for a lump in the stomach worthy of a lump in the throat. If you’re on the hunt for spicy sesame, this is how you get to sesame street…and I’m sure the waitress would be more than happy to teach you the letter “F”.
As for Dumpling Inn, they easily earned 1-2-3-4…4 stars! But the real teacher here was Chef Luz, who had schooled me yet again in another local lesson…and let me live another day (Soup Dumpling Nazi’s got nothing on that one).