Meet khinkali, your latest obsession. Khinkali are soup dumplings from the mountains north of Tbilisi, Georgia. When you check Google Maps for the mountain village in which they may have been born, khinkali is the only word you will be able to read on the screen — the location, apparently, of a restaurant. Pasanauri was a center of dumpling tourism in the Soviet era, although it has fallen on hard times. Dumpling tourism is not what it used to be.
A proper khinkali is about the size and heft of a lemon, a lump of oniony meat encased in a sturdy pleated wrapper gathered at the top in a thick, doughy knob. If you poke around in old cookbooks, you see khinkali after khinkali lined up on big platters, resembling nothing so much as Eastern European folk-art heads of garlic. In her great 1999 book, “The Georgian Feast,” scholar Darra Goldstein says that any fewer than 20 pleats is considered unprofessional.
Tumanyan Khinkali Factory is a new khinkali specialist hidden in a Glendale shopping complex courtyard, a branch of the most famous khinkali restaurant in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. Its dumplings more closely resemble old-fashioned hot water bottles, or, really, like Claes Oldenburg’s Pop art sculpture of a hot water bottle that used to grace the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s courtyard. If you count the pleats of TKF’s khinkali, you will come up with 10, 11 tops.
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Remember the first time you faced down a plate of pork and crab dumplings at Din Tai Fung? It’s like that, but for now, at least, without the line. TKF swells to bursting sometimes with huge Armenian families, drinking, hugging, yelling, plowing through truly magnificent quantities of khinkali. I have also been at the restaurant when the only other person was a violinist in a tight red dress who wandered around for half an hour and left without playing a note.
There are well-made cocktails, craft beers on tap and vodka served in carafes. A big flat-screen in the middle of the restaurant endlessly scrolls through the menu. With drinks, you are served one little bowl of unembellished chickpeas and another overflowing with unseasoned croutons. In the restaurant’s first weeks, even the waiter seemed unsure of the protocol. Are dry croutons a Georgian thing? I’m not sure I’ll ever know.
But TKF isn’t a Georgian restaurant, not entirely at any rate. Its cooking seems to exist outside the world of kharcho and lobio, of walnuts, powdered marigold petals and sour plums. You will not find the gooey cheese bread khachapuri, which is the one Georgian dish most Americans tend to know. You nibble on stuffed grape leaves and wrap thin, freshly baked lavash around slices of the pungent cured meat basturma and the spicy sausage called sujuk on the charcuterie plate, or around the feta and herbed soft cheese on the cheese plate. TKF is pretty much an Armenian restaurant with one great Georgian specialty.
The time spent waiting for the dumplings to boil won’t be entirely wasted. There is a Mediterranean salad made with simply dressed diced fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, and a deeply flavored bulgur salad called ich. The kofta, like quenelles made with ground, spiced lentils, are nice. You will probably only be able to manage one slice of the ghavurma, cold spiced beef crusted with butter, an ultrarich dish that may put you in mind of a foie gras terrine, but you will enjoy those couple of bites. There are even different kinds of khinkali, one stuffed with herbs and melted Armenian cheese, the other with sautéed mushrooms and dill — TKF may be actually suitable for vegetarians. Ask for those alternate khinkali fried crisp rather than boiled.
But really, you’re there for the beef khinkali, $2.50 a pop, hellfire hot, served as plentifully or as sparingly as you’d like on a big footed tray. They are served with sour cream and foil-wrapped pats of butter, which they don’t need, and with a few grinds of pepper, which they do. You’ll probably want some vodka too. And then you grab one by its knob, which will be the only part cool enough to touch, you bite off a bit of the top and suck down the boiling juice, and you finish the rest in one or two glorious, meaty bites.
You will find that you still have that knob between your fingers. It is technically edible, but don’t bother. The pile of spent knobs on your plate, like the pile of empty shells at a clambake, is a sign of an hour well-spent.
Tumanyan Khinkali Factory
A dumpling restaurant in Glendale serves terrific Georgian dumplings, and a few other things too.
113 N. Maryland Ave., Glendale, (818) 649-1015, tkfrestaurant.com
Appetizers, $7-$11; khinkali, $2.50 each; desserts, $5-$8.
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays to Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Parking in nearby city lot.
Charcuterie plate, Mediterranean salad, ich, boiled beef khinkali, fried cheese khinkali.