Federal’s hidden strip mall gem, known by few, loved by some
The small, fluorescently lit room is packed, with few untaken chairs scattered about. The brightly colored, unadorned walls contrast the dozen and a half people huddled about their individual tables. The room is silent except for the occasional chair movement or hushed whisper.
You brave a few awkward, silent moments when the grandma-esque proprietor appears out of nowhere and instructs you to sit. She’ll be back to clear the dirty dishes and bring you a menu. The entire establishment is run by a husband and wife team—they are your server, your cook, your bartender and your busser. This is their home and they make the rules.
You glance at the menu out of habit, but you already know what you’re getting. “What you want?” she asked, as she skids to a stop in front of your table. “Two beers, one pot sticker, one Xiao Long Bao. Please.” This is not a place to mince words, ask for special requests or to tell them you’re gluten intolerant—you’ll be asked to leave and rightfully so.
So you wait — no one has food yet and hopeful eyes are met by the same of those around you, a growing kinship wafting over the room in your shared experience. Be warned, this is not a fast dining experience, so enjoy the moment; revel in the anticipation of the meal to come and don’t dare try and complain. Suddenly, food comes pouring out of the kitchen—plates and steaming bamboo baskets are set down in a flourish. The husband, a grandpa-like figure with six wistful silver hairs clinging to his head and always the sweetest smile, sets your food down. The pride in his face is always clearly visible as he removes the bamboo lid with a flourish, warns you to be careful because it’s hot, then wanders off to the back to get more food.
The pot stickers ($10) come upside down and cooked to a golden-brown. Melded together while being seared, the dozen pork-filled dumplings are pulled apart by hand, dipped lightly in soy sauce and chili paste and will henceforth ruin every other pot sticker you will ever have. Clearly made by hand — most likely that day — the slightly salty pork filling is a wonderful counterbalance to the crunchy and chewy wrapping. The flavor is delicate yet powerful. A mingling of salty and savory leaves a sumptuous coating in your mouth.
Sitting next to the pot stickers, however, is the reason we’re here and the thing you will be telling your friends about in a lover-like tone. The Xiao Long Bao ($10), Chinese soup dumplings are pronounced (badly) as ‘zow long bow.’ These are not the dumplings that come in soup; these are ‘dumplings’ that have soup trapped inside. Neatly arranged pillows radiate steam that dissipates above. Each dumpling looks like it’s about to pop, bulging with the glorious broth and tiny meatball inside. Each one comes topped with an eloquent twisting design that is the hallmark of skilled and practiced hands.
Wait! Wait! Stop! You can’t just pop one into your mouth. You’re about to burn the ever-loving hell out of yourself. The rest of the meal is just about to taste like plastic to you. There is a process here, a ritual if you will, the dumpling is to be placed in your soup spoon. If very skilled with chopsticks use those; if not, carefully pick them up with your fingers, making sure not to puncture or tear the dumpling, and place it in the spoon. Next, add a small amount of red wine vinegar — enough to enhance, but not enough to taste. I prefer dipping the bottom of my spoon into the vinegar; others prefer pouring it on top. You can experiment to your taste from here with soy sauce and chili paste, but use this as a baseline to start. Finally, we need a way to let the steam out. I’ve seen people puncture the top of the dumpling with a chopstick, creating a small hole and vent for the steam—I personally like biting the top off the dumpling.
Give it a few seconds to cool then plunge spoon and dumpling into your mouth. There is an instant explosion of flavor as the soup inside gushes from the dumpling and you bite into the succulent meat inside. It’s like eating an entire bowl of soup in one bite. The immediate taste is powerful and overwhelming, the vinegar giving a small backing to the potent umami. You chew delicately, as we know you are impatient and it’s probably still too hot. You gulp it down, content, your face a blissful expression few people will ever see. The flavor lingers coating your mouth, reminiscent of the subtle spices found in your beer. The crisp and delicate Lao Wang Lager ($5) from Caution Brewing has you guessing at nutmeg and allspice, a perfect counterpoint to the dumpling. The rest of the meal is a delirium-induced haze which you will recall for weeks to come.
Before we leave, however, there are a few things that we need to discuss. They don’t do to-go orders, there are no reservations and there is no waiting list. You usually can’t order seconds, so make sure you order enough on the first round. These are people who want to share a part of themselves with you and they’ve invited you into their home to do that. Sit back and enjoy the adventure, the departure from the fast food American culture. Revel in the poor schmuck who gets told to leave because he doesn’t understand how to act like an adult. Read his terrible review the next day and realize he has no idea what he’s talking about. It just means more table space for you. Lao Wang Noodle House, 945 S. Federal Blvd.