One of my favorite things about Chinatown is its proliferation of hole-in-the-wall dumpling houses. Entire streets are devoted to these tiny eateries - some of them no more than a door's width across, and all brightly signposted and blessed with cheerful and optimistic names like Prosperity Dumpling, Tasty Dumpling, or Excellent Dumpling House. Every local has their favorite and my sister and her husband took me to their's - Vanessa's Dumpling House, at 118A Eldridge street.
With its large brown awning spread over a full shop width, Vanessa's appears more prosperous and upscale than many of its cheap-and-cheerful neighbors. It offers the luxury of dine-in seating and even boasts a restroom for the customer's convenience, but don't let these high-flown amenities fool you - Vanessa's is 100% authentic and a true local favorite.
If the line snaking out of the door doesn't convince you, a look at their menu probably will. Four oil-kissed, pan-bronzed Chive and Pork Dumplings will set you back only $1, and for those unenticed by a bit of fried, meat-filled pastry (do such people even exist?), Vanessa's offers other Chinese treats at equally recession-proof prices. A large bowl of Pork Wonton Soup is just $2.50, while a soft, nutty Sesame Pancake can be yours for 75 cents - that's less than the price of a pack of gum!
In these days of recessionary belt-tightening, the four-for-a-dollar fried dumpling is practically a godsend. But, I know what you're thinking - can something so cheap possibly be good? The answer is a resounding 'YES!.' It's a mystery of kitchen alchemy, but Vanessa's dumplings really are delicious; each a lightly spiced nugget of meat, swimming in a mouthful of flavorful broth, and swathed in an oil-encrusted wrapper of fresh dough - and at only a quarter a piece! I'd happily hand over pockets full of quarters to keep myself in a daylong, doughy stupor - and almost did, on two separate occasions in as many days. Because when I find a good thing, I can rarely ever have too much of it.
My sister and I first visited Vanessa's on a hot afternoon, after a long day of wandering through the streets of New York. We were ravenous, and ordered accordingly, sampling several different varieties of dumplings. The classic Chive and Pork Fried Dumplings hit the spot, with their garlicky, neon green flecks of chive and their light dusting of ginger, but the Cabbage and Pork Boiled Dumplings were a surprise favorite. The lighter taste of the boiled version makes it easier to eat more of them - which is good, since $2.50 buys you eight tender, juicy dumplings! The turn around at Vanessa's is so swift that the dumplings are always mouth-searingly hot and, in spite of the constant crowd, we never had to wait more than 10 minutes for an order. We ate our meal in courses and filled our hungry bellies for less than the price of a single movie ticket!
A few days later, we returned for my sister's final NYC meal before her move to Chicago. Determined to make this dinner a proper celebration, we grabbed a couple of seats on a communal round table and tucked into a first course of Boiled Shrimp Dumplings. Almost the priciest thing on the menu, at $4 for eight dumplings, Vanessa's takes their shrimp dumplings seriously, stuffing them with delicately spiced, fleshy pink shrimp and a swallow of the most amazing savory broth. They may be a little more dear than their pork fried cousins, but they're still the tastiest 50 cents you're likely to spend anywhere in the city.
After the shrimp dumplings, we sampled a Sesame Pancake stuffed with freshly julienned vegetables. Although the pancake is a little oilier than I'd like, it was surprisingly light and flavorful, and the fresh vegetables provide a great contrast to the slightly sweet and nutty sesame bread. You can order the same bread stuffed with roasted beef or pork, duck, or even egg or tuna salad - the fillings all reminiscent of Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches.
Our sesame pancake was followed by an order of Pork Fried Buns - very doughy and tender, and with just the perfect dough-to-filling ratio - and one last order of Cabbage and Pork Fried Dumplings, to sop up the delicious dregs of our soy-and-vinegar dipping sauce. In the end, our eyes (and wallets!) proved too big for our stomachs and my sister packed up the remains of our feast in a styrofoam box, to be eaten later, in the wee hours of the morning, on our way home from her husband's goodbye party.
On our way out of Chinatown, we passed a young Spanish couple on the street, who stopped to ask us for a recommendation for dinner. Filled with the magnanimous good spirits that an evening at Vanessa's (and the knowledge that we'd both eaten our fill for less than $10!) inevitably brings, we directed them to find their way to the little shop with the brown awning at 118A Eldridge Street. If you ever find yourself nursing a craving for perfectly fried, doughy dumplings in NYC, I'd suggest you do the same!