Asian restaurants have been opening along State Street and elsewhere in Madison over the past couple of years with a consistency that suggests a trend.
One of these is Chen’s Dumpling House, which appeared early this year at 505 State St. specializing in—you guessed it—Chinese dumplings.
Chen’s is a no-nonsense dumpling restaurant that makes its signature items by hand and per order. That typically means a little longer wait, but the result is a dumpling that is fresh and flavorful.
The menu is filled with variations on that theme. There are veggie dumplings, pork dumplings, mushroom and chicken dumplings, shrimp-rice dumplings and dumplings made with crabmeat.
Chen’s also offers some Chinese classics such as wonton soup, pork buns and rice pudding for dessert, and each is served in a simple, no-frills space that is clean and affordable. Customers place orders at a counter and wait for food to be served to their tables.
Dumplings are commonly recognized as a traditional northern Chinese food—half-moon shaped pillows of stuffed wheat pasta that are usually fried, boiled or steamed. In southern China, they are usually made from rice, and both types are available at Chen’s.
Most of its dumplings are slightly chewy and made with ground pork. There is bok choy and pork ($8.95 for 10 pieces), chive and pork (also $8.95 for 10 pieces) and crabmeat juicy pork ($7.95).
Chen’s dumplings are served with hot chili oil (that should be used with caution) or a milder vinegar sauce.
The kitchen’s vegetable dumplings feature chopped greens with garlic and chopped egg, while its shrimp rice dumplings are notable for a sweeter rice dough and tasty minced shrimp. The three delights dumpling ($9.95 for 10 pieces) combines shrimp, pork and Chinese chives, and a mushroom and chicken version ($8.95 for 10 pieces) offers a distinctly different flavor from the pork varieties.
Chen’s steamed pork dumplings ($7.95 for six pieces) are the kitchen’s top sellers, our server said, so we began a meal with an order and later discovered they are larger and made with fluffier dough than traditional steamed buns. But they are also not as flavorful. An order of barbecue pork buns ($4.95 for three buns) brought more flavor to the table but were a tad too sweet.
My dining companion decided to try a dish described on a chalkboard near the counter as “noodles with scrambled egg, tomato and bok choy”($8.95) and was sorry she did. It came off as bland and watery, and even the chili oil couldn’t help it.
She was a bit happier with four scallion pancakes ($2.95), which were a bit greasy but strongly flavored with green onion.
A bowl of noodle beef brisket soup ($7.95) was rich in flavor but too spicy for our tastes, with bok choy (Chinese cabbage) and tomato. Unfortunately, the brisket was tough and too chewy.
Among several things we tried, the bok choy and pork dumplings rated high for their subtle flavors and appealing texture, and a plate of shrimp rice dumplings was a winner for its sweet rice dough and distinctive flavor. I would also return for the three delights dumplings, which achieved a terrific balance of flavors among portions of shrimp, pork and chives.
For dessert, try the kitchen’s rice pudding ($4.95), a traditional Chinese favorite that struck us as just right. There are also steamed custard buns ($2.95), which are four slightly sweet, creamy balls of yellow custard.
Chen’s small dining room offers a handful of tables on the ground floor and more seating on a second floor, where several stools at a counter provide a nice view of the action on State Street, along with five or six tables. The room also features attractive murals and other original artwork.
Not everything at Chen’s appealed to us, and there are certainly better steamed buns in Madison. But for classic Chinese dumplings at reasonable prices, Chen’s is definitely one of your best bets.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.