There’s a new dumpling in town, and if you haven’t met the shen jian bao, prepare to taste your soon-to-be-favorite dumpling. Referred to as “jian buns” on the menu at Dough Zone
in Bellevue, the shen jian bao descends from the same Shanghaiiese heritage as the more famous soup dumpling (xiao long bao). Dough Zone has both—and much shorter lines than the two local locations of Din Tai Fung.
Dough Zone specializes—as the name implies—in all things made of dough. The soup dumplings and jian buns are just the beginning: there is all manner of noodles (in and out of soup), pancakes (both plain and wrapped around meat), and jian bing—which, like the shen jian bao, is a Chinese treat that’s been difficult to find in these parts.
The best seats in the house are the easiest ones to snag—at the bar, directly in front of the smiling young men snapping off chunks of dough to be made into dumplings. Despite a line out the door on a recent Saturday evening, most of the groups had not checked the “bar ok” column on the list, leaving open the high stools with the great views. To one side of the dough snappers sits a slab of circular metal—if you’ve seen a crêpe stand, you’re familiar with the apparatus. Each time an order comes through for jian bing, the cooks pour the dough on and spread it around using a tiny wooden tool, in a motion that looks like a miniature version of the groundskeepers cleaning up the infield between innings of a baseball game. The cook cracks an egg on top, then repeats the motion before folding you tiao—chinese doughnuts—into the crêpe, wrapping it up like a burrito. It’s strange to eat these on a hot summer da, tucked into a Bellevue store front, since the last time I’d seen a decent version, I was shivering on the early morning streets of Beijing, where they’re a typical breakfast food.
The jian buns, as they’re called here, are a warmer treat. In fact, allow this to serve as your warning not to dig in too fast. The crisp bottoms have only recently made the leap from a hot oil bath, and overzealous consumption can result in spurts of said oil making far worse leaps. I speak from experience—an incident in Vancouver left me with burns on my nose. The rest of the bun is soft, like the outside of a hum bao or steamed bun you’d find a dim sum. The inner workings of the bun are similar to its cousin, the soup dumpling (of which Dough Zone does a decent, if not world-class version). In the classic soup dumpling, the wrapper encloses both a meaty filling and a dollop of broth. In the shen jian bao, though, it’s much more common for the most of the soup to absorb into the filling and edges of the bun, so it tends to be slightly less juicy than the soup dumplings. The result is a more blatant, aggressive dumpling, the Richard Sherman to xiao long bao’s Russell Wilson.
There are more dumplings, too, at Dough Zone: you can pick from the mediocre translation on the paper menu (this is casual—you check off what you want), or from the rotating screens overhead. The fried dumplings are lacy-edged and satisfyingly crunchy, but juicier than expected—favorite shirts are not recommended attire. The screens are a mild distraction from what is an otherwise plain, pleasantly decorated space. It’s spotlessly clean, with shining black tables, so despite the location, it screams more “ground-level of new-construction” than “hole-in-the-wall.”
The all-you-can-eat congee (rice porridge) might not be dough-based, a deviation from the theme, but it also seems like a better idea in theory than in practice: how many bowls of congee can one person really eat in one sitting? Especially when combined with a flaky pancake—available as the elusive (in these parts, anyhow) spicy beef pancake roll, noodles, and dumplings. Perhaps, even more accurately than Dough Zone, this place should be called Carb Zone. Or Paleo’s Worst Nightmare. Whatever it’s called, it’s the first place to serve many of the authentic Chinese dishes it offers—and it does a much better job making them than it needs to, given that it’s the only option in town for many of them.