8432 W 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
From holiday traditions to old episodes of “Seinfeld,” the yolking of Chinese and Jewish cultures is legendary. As the trope goes, Jewish families enjoy eating Chinese on Christmas Day.
Since February, My Little Dumpling, the upscale casual eatery in West Hollywood, has crypto-pursued this cultural conflation in its pursuit to celebrate one of the great Chinese delicacies: the dumpling.
While the centerpiece here is the soup dumpling xiao long bao, the traditional dumpling stuffed with meat that many believe originated in the village (today Shanghai suburb) of Nanxiang, the restaurant does not stop there. Among the rolls, wontons, potstickers and buns are a few Jewish delicatessen-worthy hybrids, most notably Reuben Egg Roll with Thousand Island (crispy shells packed with pastrami, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut), which is basically a mini-pastrami sandwich deconstructed and reconstructed as appetizer.
The house also serves Cream Cheese Wontons with Lox, another bold, cross-cultural hybrid that works better than it may sound.
The reason behind this Judean/Shanghainese synergy can be quickly explained. My Little Dumpling is the new concept by Robert Mandler, one of the most successful pioneers of Los Angeles fusion.
Not only did his Polish-Jewish immigrant family arrive in Boyle Heights at the turn of the 20th century, but Mandler, in the 1980s, founded the legendary LA-born franchise Chin Chin, an icon of California-Asian cuisine.
As Mandler told the Palisadian-Post, after taking the original Chin Chin and growing it into a thriving chain that included outlets in West Hollywood, Studio City, Encino, Mission Viejo, Irvine, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, Mandler sold Chin Chin in 2012 and retired—or so he thought.
At the urging of his son Anthony Mandler, an established director of commercials and music videos, Mandler returned as restaurateur. After a New York crawl of famous dumpling spots, the duo decided to lease out the space that, for eons, was home to classy Italian favorite Gusto.
They overhauled the interior space with cushy booths, and had bistro-esque brass fixtures and a beer and wine bar installed.
“What you’re looking at is his design,” Mandler said, referring to his son.
As Mandler put it, he handles the culinary end—with the consultation of his research and development point man Chef Makoto “Mako” Tanaka, former Japanese chef/owner of Mako, the late S. Beverly Drive favorite who also worked at Spago and kick-started Wolfgang Puck’s acclaimed Chinois on Main in Santa Monica—while Anthony takes care of the business end and ambiance.
The resulting father/son collaboration has yielded an airy, cozy little hideaway that’s just perfect for couples of every stripe, from first date to date night and anniversary celebrations, as well as groups looking for a unique culinary proposition.
My Little Dumpling’s menu does have its share of straight-up, unadulterated Pork Potstickers and soup dumplings that eschews straying from tradition and delivers the deliciousness. However, it’s the fusion items where the restaurant becomes clever and distinctive.
While the black-skinned, squid-inked Chilean Sea Bass Har Gow (bathed in herbal broth with ginger and garlic) tastes as sublime as it appears, the greatest takeaway may no doubt be French Onion Soup Dumplings—inspired little bulbs of broth and Gruyere inside a croutons-laden bowl.
What’s completely un-Far East but very much welcome are items such as Cheeseburger Dumplings with Lychee Ketchup (outside not overly fried, beef medium rare, sauce masterfully nuanced).
For dessert—a beautifully reddishly prepared Banana Nutella Dumpling, drizzled with raspberry sauce. Sweet and to the point. This plate of perfection can be ordered with hot brew or, as I chose, a glass of Vietnamese Iced Coffee (pitch-perfect!).
Given Mandler’s Chin Chin history, the menu does contain several derivatives from his former business, namely with such holdovers as Chinese Chicken Salad and Ahi Tuna Egg Rolls. The latter, with its blend of aioli, scallion, yuzu and sesame seed along the outer rim, is a spectacular version of this appetizer.
The light touch that went into these rolls’ creation—down to the terrific finish and sans deep-fried greasiness—will leave a light ahi aftertaste in your mouth that is amazingly subtle.
One does not have to eat dumplings: Full-throated entrees here include gourmet variations on fried chicken, salmon filet and short rib. There are also mighty sandwiches, such as the bun-perched Braised Brisket Bao, stuffed with flavorful beef and teeming with a cabbage-like slaw and horseradish sauce that is as savory and lip-smacking good as it is filling. Wontons include Shrimp and Chive Wontons and Chicken and Broccoli Wontons (either in chili oil or a milder, sweeter Szechuan sauce).
Ultimately, two of my favorite plates here had nothing to do with dumplings. Garlic Noodles is outstanding. Usually, they are served with slivers of steak. Our noodles had that precise smokey aftertaste that melded just perfectly with an outstanding basil sauce that was Tanaka’s idea.
Sweet Potato Pancake with Aioli, an ube-colored crosshatching of sweet potato accompanied by black vinegar sauce, absolutely not to be missed.
While on paper the My Little Dumpling concept may read a bit forced, this is actually one of the most inventive, alive restaurants operating at the moment.