The distinctly named Pu Pu Hot Pot in Central Square, Cambridge, is no more. But Patty Chen, who opened the spot with her parents in 1993, hasn’t gone anywhere. With husband Marc Shulman, Chen reopened the restaurant as Patty Chen’s Dumpling Room. The new space is modern, with sleek black tables, psychedelic red-and-white wallpaper, and pop music on the speakers. On a busy weekend, college students pack the place, along with a few young families. It feels like a party.
On a weeknight visit, the room has only a few other diners. Hungrily, we eye waiters whisking piles of aromatic dumplings across the room. We sit with chopsticks poised, ready to pounce, when the first batch arrives. Sadly, Taipei-style pork ($7.50) have skins that are too thick and a bit gummy. The interiors are somewhat crumbly and dry (increase the ratio of fat in the filling). Mini bao ($7.50) are again foiled by skin that is too thick and tough. Dumpling room dumplings ($7.50) with a classic combination of shrimp, pork, and chives, is the favorite, but not a showstopper. In a room devoted to dumplings we can’t get excited yet. But these are warming and tasty dunked into a sauce of vinegar, soy, and hot chilies we mix in tiny porcelain dishes.
The second night is a different story. That was the packed Friday night. The room is frigid, until someone has the gumption to investigate, heading outside to un-prop the outer door. That’s all it takes to warm up the place.
We thaw by sipping green tea from thimble-size vessels, and before we know it, dumplings arrive in a deluge. First, are Chen’s vegan dumplings ($6) steamed little red bundles that get their rosy hue from kimchi powder, filled with tofu, celery, carrots, and mushrooms. Tonight, we are off to a much better start; the tender vegan version is juicy and surprisingly full of umami flavor. A generous dose of fresh ginger gives them some heat.
But for traditional dumpling lovers who love meat, order the porky filling. Many versions contain pork and the kimchi is a good place to start. Chen redeems herself with kimchi-filled dumplings ($6.50), crispy pan-fried, and filled with juicy pork and zippy fermented cabbage. Even one kimchi-averse diner is swayed by this dumpling, going back for seconds and thirds.
Chicken dumplings ($6.50) are delightfully moist, light, and flavorful in perfectly chewy skins that are tinted festive green with spinach powder. Emperor dumplings ($9) are shaped like little marshmallows, filled with a combination of beef, chicken, and shrimp. This filling might be the table’s favorite, but the skin is undercooked and doughy. The dumpling of the day is the Red Sox dumpling ($7.50) filled with the unusual combination of hot dog, ground pork, sriracha, and mustard. To our surprise, the ballpark flavors are just as delicious in a dumpling as they are at Fenway on a steamed bun.
The only dishes not wrapped in a wonton skin are soups. Miso ($3.50) is very good with thin strips of shiitake and a faint sweetness. Hot and sour soup ($3.50) is gloppy with excess cornstarch. One diner describes the taste as steak sauce. It’s the only dish that goes back to the kitchen unfinished.
For dessert, dumplings of course. Deep-fried triangles filled with Nutella and banana ($5) are exactly as delicious as you would expect. Sweet red bean ($5) has an earthy mild flavor, and a marzipan-like texture. Dusted with powdered sugar, either makes a fine ending.
The restaurant is evolving and we’re willing to give the less-than-delicious dishes another shot. Chen has applied for a beer and wine license, which is always welcome. Here’s hoping she and Shulman work out the kinks. Steaming platters of juicy, homemade dumplings is an idea we can warm up to.Catherine Smart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.