King of Dumpling in the Sunset is a fresh revelation of handmade deliciousness
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As kingdoms go, Kingdom of Dumpling is a rather Lilliputian affair a runt, actually, if that word can be used in conjunction with "kingdom." Dumplings are small objects, of course, even the Bavarian ones made from potatoes, also known as knödel, and they seem even smaller when described in the singular. Kingdom of Dumpling? Is there only one kind of dumpling, or only one permitted per customer, or (our worst-case scenario) only one of one kind permitted per customer? The answers are No, No, and No but I leap ahead.
The Kingdom (an adjunct of Kingdom of Chinese Dumpling, on Noriega) opened last spring, in the snug Sunset space once occupied by the excellent David's Kitchen. That restaurant was a culinary multilinguist, fluent in the major idioms of east and southeast Asian cuisines; it was like a miniature Straits Cafe. The new place has retained much of that spirit, right down to the Magic Marker board that hangs above one corner of the dining room proclaiming the day's specials, such as duck curry. David's Kitchen offered a similar dish, if I remember rightly.
What is different is the massive infusion of dumplings, steamed buns, and general dim-summery. If you're a haunter of noodle bars, this is an alternate universe. It's as if some restaurant geneticist created a hybrid by mixing the DNA of a pan-Asian place and a dim sum house and did so in a space that would feel crowded with a dozen people inside. But the space is still an attractive shade of creamy yellow, the tables and chairs are comfortable, and the food is excellent.
The truly fresh, handmade Chinese dumpling is a revelation, when you actually find one and bite into it. KoD's are warm and juicy inside their soft pouches of dough; eating one is like biting into a piece of perfectly fresh fruit that's been warmed by the sun, except the flavors aren't fruity but (in the main) meaty, with generous tweakings of ginger and garlic. I liked the pork dumpling with napa cabbage ($5.95) slightly better than the chicken dumpling with corn ($6.45), mainly because the chicken didn't assert itself with quite the same quiet sensuousness as the pork, and the peak-of-the-season corn was a little too sweet. But either way, you get a dozen for about six bucks, and the individual dumplings aren't small.
The appeal of warm food is primal does the heat sound an ancient echo of fresh kill? but cold dishes have their own charms, especially when they're as tasty as KoD's. Marinated seaweed salad ($3.95) is a treat I associate with Japanese restaurants, but KoD's is just as good, if in a quite different way. The seaweed itself, for starters, isn't a mass of green, crinkled threads but a bowlful of what look like julienne poblano peppers, or perhaps tiny eels that have only just stopped writhing. And while Japanese seaweed salads are typically dressed with some form of ponzu sauce, KoD's carries another charge, more savory and with less citrus-tart balance.
A salad of bean stick ($4.95) consisted of flaps of bean curd corrugated, like Ruffles potato chips and tossed with plenty of chopped cilantro. With some minced garlic and grated ginger, this simple ensemble became addictive, and the fact that was served cold not cold, really, more on the low end of room temperature faded from one's consciousness, bite by bite.
More minced garlic was assigned to enliven crispy lotus root ($5.95), an enormous platter of cream-colored disks punctuated by vacuole-like interior spaces. I had the brief sense of examining a cross-section of bacteria under a microscope. The root sections themselves were indeed tender-crispy, as if they'd been briefly stir-fried, steamed, or otherwise tenderly handled; lotus root is really a starchy rhizome, and while some authorities compare it to potato, it reminded me of a cross between jicama and daikon. The root is rich in various vitamins and minerals as well as dietary fiber and is widely enjoyed throughout east Asia.
XO sauce, as browsers at Asian markets may know, is an irresistible, if pricey, confection a lumpy paste of dried seafood (including shrimp and scallop) along with various seasonings and degrees of chili heat. It's quite good right out of the jar, as I am embarrassed to say I know from personal (though not recent) experience. How much better, though, to use the precious XO to flavor a dish like beef chow fun ($6.95), a Cantonese festival of wide noodles, strips of tender meat, and bean sprouts. The color palette here was a little too thoroughly earthen to be ideal, but the glistening of the noodles and beef did bring a bit of joy to the eye.
It's not surprising that a restaurant serving food this tasty, interesting, and carefully prepared at such modest prices should attract young people, nor that given the restaurant's location deep in the Sunset District so many of those young people should appear to be of Asian ancestry. Their presence suggests that some kind of college or university campus must lie nearby, but we couldn't think of one. City College? Not too close. San Francisco State? Closer, though hardly at hand. The Sunset might be a neighborhood not a kingdom, but it's a pretty good-sized neighborhood that shows signs of reinvention and renewal and now it has a place where you can eat like a king, for a lot less than the king's ransom.
KINGDOM OF DUMPLING
Daily, 10 a.m.9:30 p.m.
1713 Taraval, SF
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