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A few cars are pulled over on a sub- urban street in Queens around midday on a Wednesday. Their drivers sit idly, talking on cell phones. They're waiting for dumplings. This is a word-of-mouth business, and everyone knows the procedure: Customers don't venture inside, where dumpling chef Sun Le and her sister have transformed a basement into a small but pristine dumpling factory. They produce 4,000 dumplings every day.
When we think of expert home cooks toiling at some ancient handiwork, we usually picture hunched-over grandmas, but on the rare occasion that visitors are allowed down the stairs at the side of this house, they are met by a tall, slender woman in a brightly colored apron with cartoonish cat faces printed on it. Technically, this familial assembly line is not unlike a couple of old ladies making ravioli, but Sun Le is more than a cook, and the business is serious and orderly.
As teenagers, she and her sister learned how to make dumplings from their parentsnot as trade, just dinner. Later, both girls went to work at a big, well-known dumpling restaurant in Dalian, the northern Chinese city where they grew up. Sun Le became particularly deft, expanding her repertoire well beyond those early lessons. When her daughter moved to New York to attend Queens College a few years ago, she followed. Rather than working for someone else or investing in a retail space of her own, she began cooking for her Chinese neighbors, who followed her from one neighborhood to another. Soon, she needed her sisterthe only apprentice she truststo move, too.
The basement is an ordinary kitchen with two smaller rooms branching off. One of these houses a huge mixer, in which regular flour and water become dough for dumpling skins. What happens in the third room is what justifies the hour-long wait outside: the stretching, stuffing, and pinching. On one side of the room is a long wooden table; opposite is an equally long industrial freezer. The only other gadget required is a small wooden dowel.
The steps are simple, the process alarmingly fast, and the products remarkably uniform. A mass of dough sits on the table, wrapped in plastic. One sister cuts off a portion and rolls it into a log. With quick wrist-flicking, she tears off small pieces, then rolls each into a thin disc, and pushes it towards her sister. The other sister picks up a skin, stuffs it, and pinches it shut. The dumplings are frozen and then put into bags of 50, which cost $15 each. When boiled for a few minutes, so much juice pours out of the delicate pouches that they're similar to Shanghai-style "soup dumplings" (she makes those too, but only for a few restaurants in Flushing).
Sun Le's signature filling combines ground pork, a bite of fresh shrimp, sea cucumber, and chives. Andy Pan, the young owner of TKettle, a bubble-tea shop on St. Marks Place in Manhattan and a customer himself, serves this variety and has just added pork-and-cabbage dumplings and vegetable dumplings to his menu. He wanted to employ Sun Le full-time, but she declined, for fear of losing her customer base. She also requested that the Queens address be withheld here, because the demand is already overwhelming. But Pan is working on a plan to sell the frozen dumplings, perhaps starting with a northern Chinese specialty: lamb dumplings so flavorful that even Americans don't need to dip them in vinegar.
I knowI ate 12 of them in one sitting.