Longtime Santa Feans surely know the space at 500 Sandoval St. has a reputation for being cursed when it comes to housing restaurants. At various points in time, it’s been a Pizza Hut, that one place called Café Café, the promising State Capital Kitchen, the baffling Lucky Goat, the tragically underrated La Tour Experience…and lots of others. It’s a great location, too, with parking and everything, and every time some new concept opens in there, the food-lovers (sorry, I’ve grown exhausted by the term “foodies”) cross our fingers and hope for the best.
People who head over there today, this week, right now, whenever, will now find Dumpling Café (500 Sandoval St., (505) 780-5890), the brainchild of mother/son culinary team Sani and Jason Zeng, who also own the Plaza-adjacent Dumpling Tea in the Paso de Luz mall (aka the Santa Fe Galeria for the old-timers)—and the newest venture offers similarly excellent no-frills fare. Might this be the restaurant that finally lasts? Let’s hope so, because we’re all kind of sick of getting used to flash-in-the-pan dining experiences over there on Sandoval.
The Zengs only opened the new Dumpling Café in January—and told our good pals at the Santa Fe New Mexican at the time that it was aimed specifically at locals. In the months that followed, the place has built up quite the local reputation, which is notable, because this is Santa Fe, bro, where people hit the streets to shout about the lackluster Asian food scene at any opportunity. Oh, we’re nothing like New York, they say—we’re nothing like that trip they took to China some years ago! Fair enough, I suppose, but also, let’s be real here—for a tiny town like ours, Dumpling Café should be viewed as a godsend, especially for dumpling fans, and Asian food is not a monolith, jeeze!
As a longtime dumpling fan, I bided my time before dropping by for a recent dinner with a companion. And you know what? The wait was mostly worth it, at least insofar as the food itself goes. Oh, the service was what I’d call bare minimum, especially given that we ordered what I’d later describe as “kind of a lot of food,” but as long as we’re being real, that’s OK right now, because outside of the Zengs’ other establishment, there’s really no single place in town to get consistently decent dumplings, buns, bibimbap and such.
First off, as a big fan of La Tour Experience’s brunch service, it was slightly jarring to find the interior unchanged, right down to the tables, chairs and such. Even the music was a leftover from the previous eatery: trés Francais accordion jamz like “Les Champs Élyseés” and “La Vie En Rose” played in a loop and likely some kind of Music for French Restaurants compilation CD that the Zengs discovered after the La Tour people evacuated and then just kept right on playing. Part of me finds this cute and weirdly fascinating, because I assume there simply must have been some kind of “It’s fine!” conversation; part of me thinks that after roughly eight months of service, it speaks to a lack of identity outside of the food. In the end, though, I’ve long been a proponent of holes-in-the-wall or non-stuffy establishments that let food shine over the types of chairs and music they offer.
“Let it roll,” I said out loud.
We began with vegetarian spring rolls ($5.50 for two, basically a steal) that ranked among the freshest and crispiest I’ve had anyplace. Had I been alone, I could easily have demolished them both, but my companion insisted on trying them as well. They were perfection. Of course, we came for the dumplings, mainly, and placed orders for steamed vegetarian and fried cabbage and pork ($9.99 each). At six to an order, the price point is extraordinary, especially as you watch a worker crafting the dumplings by hand through a little window into a prep area. The pork version was generous and flavorful, including a satisfyingly textured veg component, and the slight crisp from the frying just plain worked. A bit of advice for the vegetarian dumplings, though? Get them fried, too. Steamed sounded so smart right up until we found them a bit too squishy. That’s on us, though, and not the restaurant—we should have thought about it for more than two seconds. Besides, the inside veggie medley tasted so fresh and came with such a wonderful and literal snap that it was easy to forgive ourselves.
We rounded out the meal with a massive order of vegetable fried rice ($13.99) and the shredded pork bibimbap ($15.99), both of which were complete winners. Now, Dumpling Café doesn’t shy away from the sodium, so I’d advise experimenting with a few bites before adding any tableside seasoning like more salt, but both dishes were a stunning value—mountainous, almost, in their portions and cooked just right. Somehow, the veggie fried rice contained such an array of flavors that I was floored; never once have I experienced so many emerging tastes across the course of a serving of rice, even if we couldn’t finish it because of all that other food.
The bibimbap came with a fried egg on top and a pile of shaved pork so seemingly endless that I had to dig to find the other stuff. By that point I’d already made my way through spring rolls and so many dumplings, but this dish was phenomenal the night-of. Still, it wasn’t until the following day, when I threw the leftover veggie fried rice and the pork from the bibimbap into a frying pan together, that the real excellence revealed itself. In my fridge overnight, the co-mingling dishes had seeped into each other, creating a new level of rich flavor that caught me by surprise. I’m actually fixing to try this again—by which I mean I’d like to order some dishes from Dumpling Café, throw them in a container together and then heat them back up the next day.
For now, though, I’ll just stay glad there’s a downtown restaurant that’s trying to put locals first. We’re forgotten often in that part of town, and we should appreciate the Zengs trying to take care of us. Did it feel like our server forgot us after the food dropped? Totally. But outside of the fine dining milieu, that’s not a dealbreaker.
“Let it roll,” I said again in my kitchen the next day, out loud, to no one.