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May 17-23, 2006

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Take Your Lumps

Cupertino's wildly popular HC Dumpling House serves up its namesake with a Shanghai twist

By Stett Holbrook

HC Dumpling House is a wildly popular Shanghai-style Chinese restaurant in Cupertino. Figuring out what to order here is tough. It's not just that there's a lot to choose from. The challenge for me was choosing something that met the approval of my waitress.

HC is short for Hu-Chiang, which is the original name for Shanghai. It's an appropriate name because the restaurant serves old-school Shanghai dishes you're not likely to find at many Chinese restaurants. The dishes would probably bring a smile to an elderly Chinese man longing for a taste of home, but some dishes are probably too advanced for the uninitiated.

Our eager-to-please waitress repeatedly steered me away from certain dishes that she thought would be too "old-fashioned," "traditional" or "smelly" for my sensitive Western palate. I'd point at a dish on the menu I thought sounded interesting and she'd crinkle up her nose a bit and quickly shake her head.

"I don't think you like this," she said earnestly.

As a food critic, I try to keep my identity a secret, but it's safe to say I'm not an elderly Chinese man. Still, I'm more than willing to venture off the egg roll and mu shu pork path. Ignoring my waitress's warnings, I dove in and ordered the bitter melon with salty egg ($8.95) and stewed pork ribs in brown sauce ($8.95). At first I liked the bitter melon. The rich rather than salty flavor of the egg gave the dish a creamy, mouth-coating fullness. But then the bitterness of the appropriately named melon kicked in and kept on kicking. My waitress was right about that one.

The ribs, however, which my waitress said were a classic Shanghai dish, were great. Instead of a brown sauce, the stubby, meaty ribs were cloaked in a glistening brick red glaze. I feared the sauce would be too oily or gelatinous, but it was neither, and had a haunting, earthy flavor with a hint of anise. Was that five spice? The meat itself was a little chewy, but wonderful rich and full of great pork flavor. Things were looking up. I was 1 for 2.

Shanghai is something of a culinary crossroads, and features dishes from throughout China as well as several of its own specialties. Probably the best-known dish is xiao long bao. Known as "XLB" by aficionados, these are northern-style dumplings that have been upgraded by inventive Shanghai cooks. The plump, fluted dumplings are filled with hot broth. Eating them so you don't puncture the delicate membrane before it reaches your mouth takes a bit of practice. The trick is to gingerly extract a dumpling from the bamboo steamer and set it on a spoon and hoist the whole package to your mouth. When done right, the dumpling explodes in your mouth with rich, soupy broth.

Since this is HC Dumpling House's namesake dish, they'd better be good. And they are. There are several kinds on the menu; I tried the Hu-Chiang house special dumplings made with pork and chive ($6.95) and the crab dumplings ($7.95). If I remember correctly, you get eight per order. The house special version arrived hotter than the crab and released a cloud of steam with the server removed the lid. But both were excellent; the wrappers are thin and silky and the little knot of filling plump and rich.

The rest of the dishes I tried were a mixed bag. The seaweed salad with garlic ($4.38) was fresh and light and loaded with barely cooked puréed garlic. But the seaweed was strips of extruded agar (a gelatinous substance made from seaweed), not the actual weed itself. Japanese yams with plum sauce ($3.95) sounded like a good starter, but it wasn't. Looking like albino crinkle-cut french fries, the cold, tasteless yams were coated in sticky, sweet plum sauce. Better was the boozy sliced chicken in shaoxing wine ($3.45) and spicy green beans topped with ground pork and peanuts.

I liked the broth-infused Shanghai-style vegetable fried rice ($5.85). Unlike so many versions of fried rice, this one was virtually oil-free and light. But it includes little chunks of pork, so if you're looking for a true vegetarian dish, this isn't it. And unless you like your kung pao shrimp ($11.95) on the sweet side, pass on this dish.

HC Dumpling House is a good-looking restaurant. Tall-backed chairs with off-white slip covers give the dining room an elegant feel even when the place is packed, which is most of the time. I liked the framed seascapes on the walls, too.

Service is friendly, but can feel a bit rushed. At my table, we were interested in ordering more food when a server dropped off fortune cookies, a gesture I took to mean: "Get moving."

There's a lot on the menu here I'd still like to try. I'm no Chinese grandpa, but I'm willing to eat like one in spite of my waitress's best efforts.

HC Dumpling House

Address: 10877 N. Wolfe Road, Cupertino.

Phone: 408.873.4813.

Hours: Closed Tue.

Price Range: $6-$15

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