Watching a dumpling station operate at full speed is a mesmerizing experience; it's amazing what four women can do with a bit of dough and meat. At Luscious Dumplings in Monrovia, they can roll out a platter of 50 dumplings in five minutes. On a Wednesday, their slowest day of the week, 918 bundles of jiaozi (餃子) are neatly assembled and put in the fridge in just three hours. And everything is done by hand.
In the San Gabriel Valley, Luscious Dumplings is an institution. They're known for their Northern-style handmade dumplings mostly stuffed with pork, often boiled, sometimes pan-fried. And in a corridor of Los Angeles County where there are dumpling houses in nearly every neighborhood, Luscious stands out because they've been able to keep things contained and consistent.
The husband and wife team Alan Lam and Grace Li opened Luscious in 2001 in San Gabriel; the latter of which was born and raised in Shenyang, a northern province known for their dumplings and dough. The word luscious is derived from the Chinese name of the store — 潤豐元 Run Feng Yuan, or more literally — Moist Abundant Garden. The Chinese name was chosen because it sounds pretty in Mandarin. But they decided, appropriately, that the word moist sounded weird in the context of the dumplings and opted for luscious instead.
Their daughter, 34-year-old Michelle Wu and her husband 35-year-old Ker Zhu opened the Monrovia outpost of Luscious three years ago. She was a nurse and he worked in fashion, but both dropped out of their respective careers for the world of dumplings. Wu's stepbrother Eric Lam is now in charge of the original San Gabriel location.
Both dropped out of their respective careers for the world of dumplings
In the Monrovia outpost, it's an exhausting lifestyle that starts at 7 a.m., with just two people in the kitchen. A large, five-gallon pot of broth slated for the noodle soups is prepared — a glorious collection of chicken and pork bones, ginger, carrots, onions and scallions. At the end of prep, part of the broth will be ladled out, sprinkled with agar and set into gelatin for the next day. Meanwhile two types of dough are mixed using just flour and water: one for the pan-fried and steamed dumplings and another for boiled dumplings. The difference: the former requires hot water, the latter does not.
At 7:45 a.m., Wu begins to work on the fillings. She starts on the pan-fried pork filling and dumps in six pounds of pork, a handful of gelatin, a cup of spices, scallions and ginger into a large mixing bowl. She blends it all in by hand and then transfers it to a mixer. The insides for the steamed dumplings are next — that requires 2.5 pounds of pork and four pounds of gelatin. For steamed and pan-fried dumplings, gelatin is paramount. After all, it's what gives dumplings their juiciness.
In many ways, the couple represents the new wave of Chinese restaurateurs in the San Gabriel Valley. The older generation is retiring and the children are stepping up.
The second generation has done well in preserving traditional recipes. After all, they were mentored by their parents. But unlike their predecessors, they are much more open about sharing ingredient lists, techniques, and most importantly — their passion. They are fresh blood and they are more enthused.
This is a transition that is happening in aging Chinese kitchens throughout the San Gabriel Valley. The kids are taking over. As a result, menus are becoming smaller and more specialized, interiors are slicker and restaurants are much more conscientious about customer feedback, branding, and social media. The differences are palpable. The font of the restaurant sign is graphic of a well-known calligrapher in China. They have T-shirts and slick business cards. They even sell jars of their handmade chili oil with beautifully printed labels. Zhu has used his fashion background to upgrade the look and feel of Luscious.
By 8 a.m., the entire dumpling crew is in the kitchen. There are four women at the dumpling station and within five minutes, they have already pinched out 50 pan-fried pork dumplings. They rotate their functions; they're extremely proficient. Some roll, others stuff, some pinch. The age of these women correspond to their experience level. The eldest is the swiftest and does everything by feel. The younger ones are by no means slow, but they will sometimes rely on the kitchen scale to get the right ratio of meat and dough. They're profoundly consistent with their speed: 50 dumplings in five minutes. They do this over and over again, four times.
The age of these women correspond to their experience level. The eldest is the swiftest and does everything by feel.
Now it's a bit odd watching a young American couple run a traditional dumpling operation. Usually at places like these, it's older folks who only speak Chinese. Though both Wu and Zhu were born in China, the husband and wife pair speaks fluent English and are thoroughly Angeleno. Both moved to Los Angeles when they were young and met at a bar somewhere in town when they were in their 20s. Both wear casual restaurant tees. Wu has her hair tied back; Zhu sports a backwards baseball cap. Swtching between languages effortlessly, Wu has a faint accent while Zhu is accent-less.
[Pan fried pork dumplings]
At 8:12 a.m., they've made 200 pan-fried pork dumplings and the women move onto the next type of dumpling: steamed soup dumplings, or xiao long bao (小籠包). These require a couple more seconds of more time. The pinching pattern is a bit more elaborate than the last batch. It takes them an average of 15 seconds to pinch together the xiao long bao. The pan-fried pork dumpling only took them four.
In the back, Wu starts on the stuffing for the chive pockets, combining three pounds of ground pork, a dozen eggs, glass noodles and chives in a mixture. Chive pockets, or jiucai heizi (韭菜盒子), are heavenly hand pies infused with the aforementioned toppings and deep-fried in oil.
She had just finished the celery dumpling and shrimp dumpling fillings ten minutes before. "We do celery dumplings for the people who can't eat shrimp," Wu explains.
The celery batch consists of one pound of pork, celery and a handful of gelatin. The shrimp filling uses cabbage, two and a half pounds of shrimp, plus three pounds of pork.
At this point, her husband Zhu arrives and begins prepping stewed beef and pork for their in-house noodles. The beef is for the beef noodle soup; the pork is for their pork with pickled mustard green noodle soup.
The entire scene in the kitchen looks like it could be placed in China. It smells of pork, ginger, garlic and scallions. There are flying woks and dishes, tubs of spices, dough and meat. But then Wu or Zhu speaks in English and you're immediately transported back to the delightful reality that this is indeed in Los Angeles.
You're immediately transported back to the delightful reality that this is indeed in Los Angeles
Wu works on the final filling: chive and pork. She combines three pounds of pork, 2.5 pounds of shrimp, chives, eggs and glass noodles.It's 8:31 a.m., and the dumpling station has just cranked out 120 steamed dumplings. They start rolling out the chive pockets. These take a bit more time; there's a beautiful lattice pattern that hugs the outside. The women clock in 27 pieces in 14 minutes. One woman, the oldest, leaves for the San Gabriel location. They're down to three at the dumpling station and though they lose a bit of speed, they stay consistent. They pump out 71 celery dumplings.
Without missing a beat, the dumpling ladies start on wrapping up shrimp dumplings. It's 8:59 a.m. In 19 minutes, they crank out 250. Nearly an hour later at 9:50 a.m., they have another batch sealed and refrigerated. They just finished up 250 chive and pork dumplings.
They are done for the day.
"Today because you guys were visiting, they didn't talk as much and so they worked faster," Wu explains. "Also, Wednesday is our slowest day so we don't make as many dumplings as we usually do."
The dumpling ladies pack their stuff and leave. Within the next hour, another four people will arrive to help with the cooking. Dumplings are boiled, steamed, or fried to order. Noodles soups are assembled the same way. They open their doors at 11 a.m. and close at 8:30 p.m., though they often sell out. Zhu says that the pan-fried pork dumplings are the most popular variety.
"[My parents-in-law] worked really hard to open Luscious," Zhu explains. "It was really difficult in the beginning. When they sold a certain amount a day, they would just celebrate and buy themselves ice cream."
And while Zhu and Wu have the advantage of operating under their parents' great reputation, their journey has by no means been an easy ride. In many ways, they are younger versions of the first Luscious owners — working constantly but celebrating the small victories. On top of it all, the couple also recently gave birth to a son.
"The first eight months, we didn't have a life," Zhu says. "Sometimes I just took naps at the restaurant. I eventually want to open another restaurant. Maybe in Pasadena. I see the potential."
919 W. Duarte Road, Monrovia, CA 91016