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Eat and Drink

Dumplings in NYC: Tasting Brooklyn's best bites from around the world

Every culture worth its salt has a dumpling.

At least, they do in the way we loosely define the word — a pocket of dough stuffed with a sweet or savory filling.

In New York City, where ethnic neighborhoods are the spices that season this gloriously multicultural city, dumplings come in an astounding variety of forms: they can be stuffed with meat, veggies, cheese and even noodles; they can be wrapped in dough made with wheat or corn flour, and shaped into half-moons, purses and pyramids; they can be pan-fried, deep-fried, boiled and steamed.

But every single kind — from the Chinese xiaolongbao to the Mexican tamale to the Jewish knish — offers comfort in each bite. (And, needless to say, a cheap, carb-tastic option for snacking.)

We plan to travel across the city in search of some of the tastiest dumplings from all corners of the world, but we're starting our epic quest in Brooklyn. Here are our delicious (at least we think so) picks for the trendsetting borough :

Kai Feng Fu Dumpling House (Chinese pot stickers)

The pot stickers are plentiful and cheap at
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

The pot stickers are plentiful and cheap at this hole-in-the-wall dumpling spot in Brooklyn's Chinatown, on 48th Street, just off Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park. A plate or clamshell of four pork-and-leek dumplings will cost you all of $1. Stand at the counter long enough after you've paid, and you can watch just how they're prepared -- a cook packs the jiaozi (as they're called in Mandarin) tightly into a heated wok, adds water and covers the pot to steam them, and then finishes the batch by frying them in oil. The result of that steam-and-fry process: dumplings that crisp nicely on the bottom and stay moist and juicy inside.

4801 Eighth Ave., 718-437-3542

Don Paco Lopez Panaderia (Mexican tamales)

You have to get your day started early
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

You have to get your day started early to grab one of the tamales made every morning at this family-run Mexican bakery and café in Sunset Park. A ground corn-based dough is prepared in the kitchen, folded inside a dry corn husk, and refrigerated overnight before steaming for a little more than an hour the next morning. Fillings include plums, pork in mole sauce, and a mix of cheese and salsa verde.

The restaurant's recipe for a dish closely identified with Christmas celebrations doesn't originate with the eponymous Don Paco, the baker's son Miguel Lopez tells us, but his Mexican-born wife, Leonila Lopez. Leonila began making and selling her tamales at Don Paco Lopez Panaderia on Friday afternoons in 1992, the year the business opened.

The Lopez family has since modified her original recipe for diners trying to eat a little healthier, says Miguel, a manager at the shop. That means trading rich but oh-so-flavorful lard for soybean and corn oils.

It hasn't made a dent on the tamales' appeal: they still disappear by 10 a.m. on some mornings, Lopez reports.

4703 Fourth Ave., 718-492-7443,

Pastosa Ravioli

Historically an Italian and Jewish neighborhood, Bensonhurst has
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

Historically an Italian and Jewish neighborhood, Bensonhurst has become increasingly multiethnic over the years, but this third-generation, family-owned and operated Italian specialty store at the corner of 75th Street and New Utrecht Avenue will take you back in time with its well-stocked displays of olive oils, cured meats and pastas. Polly-O salesman Anthony G. Ajello opened the original Pastosa ravioli shop in the Flatlands in 1966; demand was so great, he opened this second, larger outpost in 1972.

Freezers here are stocked with 12- and 36-count boxes of ravioli with all kinds of flavored fillings: mushroom, lobster, Gorgonzola and walnuts, butternut squash. If you're lucky, you'll find some behind the prepared foods counter on the day you visit, too.

What makes the Ajello family recipe so special?

It's the cheese filling that makes theirs "the smoothest, creamiest, most delicious ravioli I've eaten in my life," says cashier and longtime Bensonhurst resident Cathy Annarumma. Customers "come in from New Jersey, they come in from Long Island. They want the stuff shipped. It's crazy."

7425 New Utrecht Ave., 800-457-2786,

Varenichnaya (Russian pelmeni and Ukrainian vareniki)

You don't have to throw a nested doll
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

You don't have to throw a nested doll very far to find Russian or Ukrainian dumplings in Brighton Beach, but extremely affordable prices and charming rustic décor drew us to this cozy establishment off the main avenue, which specializes in what its menu calls "Russian-style ravioli." Pelmeni are boiled, bite-sized dumplings with thin skins folded like fancy dinner napkins and meat fillings: chicken, veal and "Siberian Meat," a combination of pork and beef. Their Ukrainian cousins, varenikis, are half-moon in shape, and come stuffed with savory ingredients (creamy potatoes, fried cabbage) and sweet ones (cherries, cottage cheese).

A plate of roughly 15 mushroom-and-potato vareniki topped with fried onions and served with a dollop of sour cream cost us $6.95. We recommend drizzling some of the unidentified red sauce on your table -- the recipe is a "secret," our Russian-speaking waitress told a translator, but it obviously includes tomato, garlic and sugar and likely red wine vinegar -- on top.

3086 Brighton 2nd St., 718-332-9797

Allan’s Bakery (West Indian beef patties)

On a Friday night, you'll find this half-century-old
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

On a Friday night, you'll find this half-century-old Caribbean bakery in Prospect Lefferts-Heights popping with reggae and calypso music and a long line of locals awaiting their turn to order at the counter.

"They're looking for some island flavor," says Sharon Smith, who runs the second-generation family business with her two sisters, Delia and Cynthia.

The house specialty is really the sweet Trinidadian currant roll, but a heated holding cabinet by the register stores an endless supply of patties stuffed with beef ($1.50 each) and other fillings, like chicken and codfish ($2). The pastry is flaky, the ground beef spicy and seasoned with what we believe to be thyme and sautéed onions. (Smith would not divulge any details of her parents' recipe, perfected long ago in the Bushwick apartment where Allan's Bakery began.)

1109 Nostrand Ave., 718-774-7892,

M Shanghai Bistro & Garden (Chinese soup dumplings)

When May Liu first opened M Shanghai 16
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

When May Liu first opened M Shanghai 16 years ago, the Chinese restaurant was among the first on the south side of Williamsburg, she recalls. "We kind of established ourselves as the artists' joint," a hip space where galleries in the neighborhood and around the city would host festive gatherings for collectors, artists and their friends and family, Liu says.

M Shanghai also established a reputation for its juicy pork buns, "meatier and juicier than your average soup dumplings," according to its owner. Indeed, we can confirm that the house-made, homestyle dumplings are so generous in size, they spill over the sides of your porcelain soup spoon. The deliciously unctuous broth inside comes from gelatin mixed in with the pork filling, which melts upon steaming inside a small bamboo basket called a xiaolong.

On a pleasant day, polish off an order of six xiaolongbao ($9) outside in the all-year-round backyard.

292 Grand St., 718-384-9300,

Baba's Pierogies

This cheery, white-walled Gowanus spot putting a modern,
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

This cheery, white-walled Gowanus spot putting a modern, American spin on Slavic culinary traditions offers everything from classic pierogi stuffed with a (surprisingly flufly) mix of potatoes and farmer's cheese to an unconventional variety packed with rich, stovetop mac 'n' cheese. Order a plate of five or nine (ranging in price from $8 to $12) boiled and tossed in butter or chives, or pan-fried and served with sour cream. To take yours the extra mile, we recommend toppings like sautéed mushrooms and smoked bacon bits.

Helena Fabiankovic, a Sunset Park resident who traces her roots to Slovakia and who runs the operation with her life partner, Robert Gardiner, tells us there is actually a Baba behind it all: Fabiankovic's grandmother -- photos of whom line the wall to the right of the entrance -- still prepares pierogi every Friday and the kitchen at Baba's uses her dough recipe.

"We're roll [it] very thin, which is the way I like it, and the way my grandmother made them," Fabiankovic recalls of her childhood.

295 Third Ave., 718-222-0777,

Jay and Lloyd's Kosher Deli (Jewish knishes)

Half the reason it's worth making the trek
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

Half the reason it's worth making the trek out to this family-friendly delicatessen in Sheepshead Bay is the schmoozing, courtesy of delightfully garrulous co-owner Lloyd Lederman. (The third-generation Brooklyn deli man can talk your ear off about family photos and illustrations by customers and friends mounted on the walls, and the countless hot dog-, knish- and pickle-themed tchotchkes on display.) The other half: the old-school Jewish comfort food.

Anthony Bourdain may have dined on pastrami here, when he visited for a final episode of "No Reservations" back in 2012, but we recommend trying the house-made knishes, too. If you're feeling traditional, try the kasha, or buckwheat kind, with its distinctively earthy aroma. If you're looking to branch out, Lederman also makes a sweet potato and pineapple knish (like the pie, but with more "zing," he says), and healthier options with chunky pieces of broccoli and zucchini.

Unlike the pre-made Gabila's knishes the deli sells, the fried snacks that Lederman makes with his own two hands in the kitchen are more rectangular in shape and flakier in crust: "I want them to taste the knish, not the big, heavy dough," he says. An egg wash gives the store-bought pastry its tempting, golden color.

2718 Ave. U, 718-891-5298,

Kitchen Grill Indian Restaurant (Indian samosas)

An order of the veggie samosas ($4.95 for
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

An order of the veggie samosas ($4.95 for two) at this Clinton Hill take-out spot with a few dine-in tables is the ideal appetizer -- or teatime snack, if you're scheduling your afternoon as they would on the South Asian subcontinent. The tetrahedral dough pockets -- fried to a crispy, flaky perfection that must entail substantial amounts of ghee, or clarified butter -- are prepared fresh on the premises everyday, cashier Abdul Siddiki tells us. They're packed with smashed, curried potatoes and green peas, and seasoned with what we identified as either tiny coriander or cumin seeds.

Kitchen Grill's samosa already pack some heat, but if you're looking for a little extra spice, pair some spicy onions with each bite. Other sauces include the usual coriander and tamarind options.

914 a Fulton St., 718-789-7800,

Mtskheta Cafe (Georgian khinkali)

In Brooklyn, soup dumplings aren't exclusive to Chinese
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

In Brooklyn, soup dumplings aren't exclusive to Chinese restaurants. This unassuming Georgian cafe in Gravesend -- named after the former capital (whose name we found virtually unpronounceable) -- serves khinkali, a version said to be native to the mountain highlands of the one-time Soviet republic.

These dumplings are filled with broth and relatively lean ground beef, instead of the fatty pork typically found farther east. Their skin is thicker, making their folds as voluptuous as those of heavy fabric curtains.

At Mtskheta, cooks prepare a $10 plate of six to order, rolling out each dumpling casing individually, waitress Sophie Nadiradzé told us. "It's not very easy to make or eat," noted Nadiradzé, who grew up in Georgia and instructed us in how one properly consumes a khinkali: You're supposed to pinch the gathered top, colloquially known as the "hat" or "bellybutton," with your fingers and turn it upside down. You'll have to nibble the bottom carefully to prevent the broth from spilling everywhere.

2568 86th St., 718-676-1868

Empanada City (Puerto Rican & Dominican empanadas)

Pick up a fried snack at this charming
Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

Pick up a fried snack at this charming newcomer to the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood, and you'll know exactly where you stand: the brick-walled, counter-service spot stamps the light, just oily enough skins of its signature dish with its name.

Cashier Jeremy Almonte, the nephew of owners Briant Almonte and Jessica Almonte-Rodriguez, recommends ordering the $3 ropa vieja. The house-made empanada filled with flank steak, peppers and onion in a red sauce is based on his grandmother's recipe. Eating it, he says, "makes me feel at home with my grandma -- and that's hard to replicate."

For dipping, you have a choice of three sauces, but we suggest the creamy avocado mayo seasoned with cilantro, lime and garlic, and the green habanero hot sauce. To cool your palate down, sip on a selection of smoothies named after members of the extended Almonte-Rodriguez clan.

363 Lincoln Rd., 718-363-5252,


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