My first thought when I walk into Dumpling Time is “Thank God I skipped breakfast.” The lunch shift is just beginning at 11 a.m., and the first few patrons are sitting down, most looking like they’ve been here before, slipping into informal tables while K-Pop videos play on a projection screen. There’s a savory, spicy aroma in the air and my host, Edgar Agbayani, corporate chef for the Omakase Group, doesn’t hold back when he starts rattling off the menu items for us to try.
Edgar is everything you might hope someone with the title ‘corporate chef’ would be—hands on, in touch with his clientele, and always striving for the next best thing. He also, of course, has a full sleeve of tattoos, which I’ve heard is a requirement for any chef in San Francisco.
I try to dig into what makes Dumpling Time special—I point out that you don’t have to walk far in this city to find authentic, often notoriously so, dumplings. You don’t have to walk far to find pretty crappy dumplings, either. His response is backed up by plate after plate of filled-to-the-brim-but-still-perfectly-sealed gyoza, xiaolongbao, bao, and Xi’an. “When we tell you you’re getting pork, you’re actually getting pork, not a bun with a little bit of pork,” he says. To drive this point home, you can watch the dumplings being made throughout the day through a window near the main entrance, where chefs are working through huge bowls of different fillings.
I wonder aloud whether it’s hard to ride the line between traditional, too-good-to-be-messed-with recipes, and more inventive takes on such classics, in order to appeal to both sides of the aisle when it comes to what customers want. Does Edgar have full creative freedom? “Of course,” he tells me, unhesitating, like it’s no big deal. But in reality, this is the secret sauce of Dumpling Time. Omakase Group owners’ Jackson Wu and Kash Feng’s mothers are key recipe developers for the restaurant, and my favorite item of the meal, the Pork Xi’an Dumplings, are Mama Wu’s exact recipe. They’re dressed in fresh heirloom tomatoes, radishes and green onion, and Edgar adds a diluted red vinegar to the bowl for more flavor. The amazing thing to me is that this tried-and-true formula stands confidently and seamlessly next to the more intriguing combinations: pork belly bao with peanut butter (um, yes) and deep fried shrimp toast on a Chinese doughnut (as indulgent as it sounds) for two examples.
By constantly riding the line between new and old, traditional and modern, Edgar and the team have created something rare—a menu that just might please everyone. If you know the genre, you’re going to find the things you count on, like spicy cucumber salad, blistered and garlicky green beans, and delicate, slurpable XLB, and if you’re looking for something new, you’re guaranteed to be tempted by seafood gyoza with spiced chili butter (there’s no going back after trying this) and the Three-Sum trio of dessert buns (Edgar likes puns), among many other items.
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Speaking of puns, when you find Dumpling Time on Instagram, you’ll be smacked by image after image of the King Dum, or….giant soup dumpling. It comes with a boba straw to sip the broth and I can’t help but ask if it’s more meant for picture-taking than actual eating. It turns out this signature item isn’t quite as one-of-a-kind as one might initially think, as he tells me he’s seen it in China, too.
As our meeting comes to a close and we sip the Pu’er tea that Dumpling Time imports and adds chrysanthemum to, I hear about how important it is to source only fresh and seasonally appropriate ingredients, along with some of the behind the scenes experimentation like fried Xi’an, which is traditionally boiled. A main source of inspiration comes from international travel at least twice a year, not limited to Asia, because as Edgar explains, after all, any type of ravioli is technically a dumpling, too.
As it turns out, we don’t need to pick a lane when it comes to dumplings. As much as it might make sense to all of us on the outside to see an “either/or,” blending the time-honored with the contemporary actually seems to be about an “and,” if Dumpling Time is any indication. The team has found harmony in blending the deep-rooted institution of “the Dumpling” with the ever evolving food mecca that is San Francisco, and according to some previews about what’s to come, they have no intention of slowing down. Hint: Wagyu beef Gyoza, coming soon.
Header image courtesy of Dumpling Time.