The first thing you’ll see when entering Alhambra’s You Kitchen is a computer kiosk resembling one of those infernal self-service check-in machines at LAX.
But this one is a friend, there to guide adrift San Gabriel Valley diners with a shaky hold on Mandarin through a touchscreen ordering process, complete with full menu, English translations and photographs of everything from the spicy duck head to the pumpkin pancake dessert.
The second thing you’ll probably see is the upbeat smile of Mary Shao. Originally from the city of Shenyang in China’s northeastern Liaoning province, Shao opened You Kitchen just a few doors down from 101 Noodle Express. Here she offers soups, noodles, hot pots and 10 dumplings, the specialty of the house, which can be ordered boiled, steamed or fried.
While many dumplings houses resort to using dumpling machines and pre-freezing batches to speed up wait times, at You Kitchen, the dumplings are always made from scratch by mortal hands, typically those of a family member. They hit the table in rustic, imperfectly perfect, hand-hewn half-moons.
Shao noted that dumplings from Shenyang and other northeastern coastal cities include seafood more regularly than other regions in China; I noticed that her dumplings also included riotous and brightening quantities of fresh herbs. Her signature dumpling includes ground fish, cilantro and water chestnuts; another speciality — a pork-and-pickled cabbage dumpling — speaks to a regional affection for braising pickled cabbage.
Many of her pork dumplings include corn, green peppers or string beans — Shao says she’s trying to make a healthier menu.
Though the dumplings have a certain heft, their skins are notably tender, with no hard seams, glutinous resistance or tough sections, yielding with a nibble to a blast of herbs, hot liquids and finely ground meat. The wrappers revel in delicacy, their contents packed with an unforced freshness.
Elsewhere, steamed pork buns arrive fluffy and light, with a lightly fried, frico-esque base providing a crispy contrast.
Pork pancake rolls, stacked on the plate in a foursome, are open-ended with meat tumbling loosely from their sesame-flecked pastries. While many competing examples lose their composure by lunchtime, these come warm and flaky.
And should anyone need more dumplings at any point, or just a refill on their red bean milkshake, there’s a friendly computer standing by, with no plans to disappear on a smoke break.