When stepping up to the counter to order, it won't take long to figure out the focus. Right below the restaurant's exposed wood rafters, you'll see a series of photos of the dumpling making process. Northern Cafe sells 10 varieties of dumplings that are hand-made at the owner's Temple City restaurant, which has a larger kitchen.
The appearance of xiao long bao might seem like a mirage in Westwood, but they're very real here. The juicy steamed pork dumplings, first popularized in Shanghai and by international practitioners like Din Tai Fung, appear in groups of eight at Northern Cafe thanks to Betty Ren, one of L.A.'s most prolific Chinese restaurateurs.
Ren focused on Westwood because the student populace at UCLA is almost 40% Asian
Ren hails from Fushun in China's Liaoning Province, a short jaunt from Beijing and Inner Mongolia, on the Yellow Sea, and next to North Korea. She's become a bit of a magnate since opening Dumpling House in Arcadia in 2004, and now owns eight restaurants total across L.A. County. There's a Golden House in Temple City, China Tasty in Alhambra, and two other outlets of Northern Cafe in Cerritos and Hacienda Heights. A pedigree like that makes Ren's opening in Westwood a very big deal.
The main draw for the Westside neighborhood is the built-in UCLA student population, which is almost 40% Asian. At Northern Cafe, Ren has even hired Mandarin speakers to help customers feel more comfortable, and indeed most servers commence ordering in Chinese if you look Asian (even if you're not Chinese). And yes, Ren was in the house, touching tables and clearing plates, during our visit.
Seating options at Ren's first fast casual restaurant include wood banquettes, tables and booths, and mottled yellow walls lined with red tea sets and faux plants. A black number on a white card rests atop a stainless steel stand and signals servers like a flag. Eventually, food will start to arrive. The space previously housed Mongols, a Mongolian BBQ restaurant that was a mainstay since 1986.
Back to xiao long bao. Dumpling skins come on the rustic side at Northern Cafe, but the fillings aren't sweet and they still manage to satisfy. They also offer XLB with crab meat and pork. In either case, dip your dumplings in a blend of soy sauce, vinegar, and if you like spice, chile sauce. The only things missing are soup spoons to catch runoff.
Dumplings also come in classic combos like pork & Chinese cabbage or fish & chive, plus more California inspired combos like fennel & pork or kale & pork. Northern Cafe also serves crisp-bottomed pork potstickers and wontons (pork or shrimp) that unfortunately arrive bathed in a thick, viscous sauce.
Plenty of tables sport scallion pancakes from the menu section marked "Small Plates," though we were partial to the beef roll, a flaky pancake rolled with thin-sliced meat, a dab of hoisin, scallions, and cilantro.
Ren's other restaurant, China Tasty, features noodles made in-house through an observation window. She buys noodles for Northern Cafe, but they're still high quality and handled with care. Lao gan ma fried noodles are especially good, with thick, ropy noodles tossed with chicken, raw garlic, black beans, chilies, and cabbage.
A cauldron of creamy cubes tossed with chilies and peppercorns that delivered tongue tingling ma la spice
"House Entrees" all come with a side of steamed white rice and make for satisfying one-plate meals. They had sold out of Chongqing crispy chicken tossed with dried chilies, a testament to the dish's popularity, but they offered several more options. Sichuan inspired mapo tofu featured a cauldron of creamy cubes tossed with chilies and peppercorns that delivered tongue tingling ma la spice. House special cumin lamb is another crowd pleaser, with thin-sliced lamb stir-fried with onions, dried chiles, and a week's diet of chile paste and cumin seeds.
To drink, they have Coca-Cola brand sodas, and a variety of teas, including basic lemon black, Chinese herbal, and Thai milk. Really though, unless you're looking to cool off, why waste stomach space when you can double down on dumplings? Especially when you're on the Westside, and the next best option might be an hour's drive away, in the San Gabriel Valley.
Northern Cafe, 1064 Gayley Ave., Westwood, 310.208.8830, www.northerncafeucla.com