Sitting in the new Dumpling House between Harvard and Central squares, servers whiz by your table at mach speed. Bamboo baskets of soup dumplings and piping hot kettles of tea puff clouds of delectably scented steam into the air. You’d swear you are in Chinatown (the vast majority of patrons are Chinese-American). This freshly minted Cambridge location is from the folks behind Chinatown’s wildly popular Gourmet Dumpling House. With its vast menu of handmade dumplings, numbing-hot Sichuan specialties, and dishes made with crustaceans from a live-lobster tank, this outpost lives up to the hype.
Dumpling House is sparkling, lively, and efficient. This is not a place for a long, leisurely meal, where you are coddled by servers. It is a place to scald your lips slurping delectably juicy mini soup dumplings with pork ($7.25) and trash your manicure picking sweet, freshly cooked, twin lobsters with ginger and scallions from their sticky shells ($29.95, enough for two). Eat your meal, then scram so the next person in line can settle in.
Those soup dumplings are good enough to make you crave molten pouches of soup, even on a hot summer’s day. Dip your spoon into a little of the black vinegar that arrives with it, and don’t forget to nibble off a corner of the pouch to let steam escape and noisily suck down the umami packed soup before eating the rest of the dumpling. Bite right into it, and you’re looking at very hot broth going everywhere and you will certainly need a trip to the dry cleaner.
Shandong-style steamed dumplings ($7), are homey little pockets of savory pork, ginger, and garlic. For added texture and crisp richness, get them pan-fried ($7.50). Shredded beef with longhorn pepper ($12.95) is a favorite at the Chinatown location, and equally delicious here. A generous 50-50 portion of stir-fried beef and savagely hot green peppers, will have you wolfing down your next bite before the burn of the last catches up with you. Secure yourself a tall glass of water before you dig in, or risk looking like us: flailing rookies desperately flagging down busboys between bites of white rice. A seasonal specialty, sauteed peapod shoots ($13.95) are a welcome relief from the heat, a fresh grassy green, slick with garlicky oil.
On a lunch visit, the food is fresh and delicious, though somewhat milder than we expected. Request the level of spice you prefer.
A special of ma po tofu ($8.50) comes with white rice, and a bowl of clear soup we can’t comment on because we were so enamored with the other dishes, that it sat completely neglected. This vegetarian version (it often comes topped with ground pork or beef) is wholly satisfying, with cubes of creamy but firm tofu, swimming in a bright red sauce spiked with Sichuan peppercorns and a just a touch of heat.
Sichuan dried spicy chicken ($11.95) is much milder than expected, despite the generous peppering of red dried chiles. Crispy on the outside, moist within, and coated with sesame seeds, it’s easy to love these bite-size chicken tenders for grown-ups, though they could have used an extra sprinkle of the numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Braised eggplant with basil ($10.95) is billed as spicy but isn’t (at least this time). It is, however, tender, tasty and sweet, with plenty of fresh basil.
With such a large menu, spanning cuisines from North to South, we barely scratch the surface, but of all the things we try, there are zero duds. Yes, we have had more intensely flavorful dry-fried chicken, and soup dumplings with slightly more delicate, slouchy skins, but not in a while, and certainly not in Cambridge (or Somerville or Medford). This is some of the best Chinese food this side of the river. Show up with an empty stomach, an assertive attitude, an adventurous appetite, and patience at the door. They’ll hustle you in and out in no time.