Over the course of culinary history, there are ideas that are recreated again and again. Every culture has some version of meat roasted over a fire, whether they call it barbecue, kebab, shashlik, yakitori, or something else. Similarly, once people come up with the idea of dough, it’s a natural thing to wrap it around meat or vegetables. Bake it and you have turnovers, steam it for tamales, fry it for samosas or empanadas, boil it and call it a stuffed dumpling.
Chinese dumplings have been trending for the last few years, with specialists proliferating around LA. But until recently, the Beach Cities haven’t had much to offer. That changed with the opening of Jiayuan Dumpling House, which offers a wide variety of stuffed noodles as well as something much rarer – the cooking of the Northern Chinese province of Heilongjiang.
For those who haven’t already run to look it up, that’s the furthest part of the Chinese northeast, well north of the Korean peninsula, and sharing a border with Siberia. It’s the coldest part of China, and has little land that’s suited to rice cultivation. So the locals figured out how to make the most of wheat noodles and pancakes, often incorporating meats with the mushrooms and other vegetables that grow in the mountains and plains. The cuisine is quite different from the coastal regions that gave us Cantonese cuisine, or the jungles of Hunan and Sichuan, an illustration of the same culture is expressed in a different ecology.
Jiayuan Dumpling House has an odd history. The restaurant was started by the Shi family in Lethbridge, a medium-sized city in the inland province of Alberta, Canada. After flourishing there for years, the household moved to Los Angeles so their daughter could get a better education, and they eventually opened a new version of the restaurant. It’s a small place in the strip mall where Prospect Avenue dead-ends into PCH, and it’s quite possible you’ve driven by and missed it.
This is quite literally, homestyle cooking. “Jiayuan” means “our home” in the Longjiang Chinese dialect, and the version here is mostly authentic rather than Americanized. There are a few modern items, such as the Northeastern-style tossed salad, which includes greens, onion, carrot shreds, mushrooms, and toasted walnuts tossed in a sesame and vinegar-based dressing. This is obviously not a traditional dish because the Chinese don’t eat raw lettuce salads, though there is a local variant of lettuce that is quick-fried before serving. Purists may turn it down, but it’s an enjoyable starter on its own merits.
The other appetizers we’ve tried were the fried chicken-stuffed eggplant and the beef braised with house special sauce. The beef is very tender and has herbal overtones that include star anise and ginger, and it’s served cold over lettuce tossed with that same tasty salad dressing. The menu doesn’t mention that the beef is served cold and some customers have been surprised, but they should give it a chance. As for the eggplant, the large discs of vegetable are split and a thin layer of chicken is put inside before it’s closed, battered, and fried. As is the case in many peasant dishes, the meat is a flavoring rather than the main element of the meal. The eggplant had a satisfying crunch from the battered exterior and is a worthwhile starter.
Of the non-dumpling entrees, we’ve tried the Northern-style sweet and sour pork, twice-cooked pork, house special noodles, poached fish, and a local specialty, twice-cooked “stir-fried three fairies.” I have no idea why sauteed potatoes, eggplant, and green pepper with tomato would be given that name, unless it was to jazz up a poor person’s meal, but it’s a nice comfort food dish.
The twice-cooked pork is another cold country peasant dish, with slices of roast pork sauteed with cabbage and wood ear mushrooms in a sauce that had just a bit of pepperiness. Chili oil is served for those who like it, and I liked just a dash of it.
I didn’t need any extra heat with the spicy fish poached in chili sauce, which has plenty of spice in the broth and was liberally garnished with dried chilies. Be warned when you order it – this is a very big bowl of rather spicy fish stew with onions and vegetables, and quite enough for a full meal. If that sounds great to you, then get it and enjoy the tongue burn.
None of the other dishes came close when it comes to chili heat, though there was a dash of pepper in the twice-cooked pork and the Northern-style sweet and sour pork. What makes that dish Northern style is what was left out, namely the pineapple, green peppers, and tomato that are usually served. This is a dish of thinly sliced, breaded and fried pork in sauce, and that’s it. There’s some scallion and cilantro garnishing it, but otherwise it’s carnivore carnival, Chinese style. The twice cooked pork was a Northern version of Sichuan dish, less spicy than the original but still very flavorful.
Along with these full-flavored items you might want something mild for contrast, and the stir-fried noodle dishes do the job. I found them a bit bland and used a dash of chili sauce on mine, but the spice wimp at the table preferred them just as they were. You’ll definitely want some of the house-made dumplings, which are after all what this place was named for. They offer five kinds and we tried two, the beef, daikon, and carrot and the pork with napa cabbage. The packets of dough are done pot sticker style, steamed and then fried on only one side, and when they arrive the filling is boiling hot – you have been warned. If you give into your eagerness, you will burn your tongue. The dough has the slight springiness of really fresh pasta, the fillings have a simple wholesomeness that’s about natural flavors rather than heavy seasoning. You may have to wait some time for these because they’re made to order, but they are worth the wait.
Jiayuan Dumpling House has been very busy from the moment they opened, and the popularity has evidently caught the Shi family by surprise. They planned to add to the menu but have had to postpone offering some items that take longer to make, and at peak times some people wait up to an hour for a table. The restaurant is small, so if you wish to dine in you should arrive early. Do it, because the experience they offer is one of a kind in our area.
Jiayuan Dumpling House is at 1904 S. PCH, Redondo Beach. Open daily except Monday, 11 a.m – 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. Parking lot. No alcohol. Wheelchair access good. Some vegan items. JYDumplings.com, (310) 792-6789. ER