Last week I got an excited email from Jeff, announcing that his boss Alex had given him a recommendation for a great Taiwanese restaurant called Jo Jo Taipei in Allston. This was the same guy who turned us on to Shanghai Gate, and he was certainly right about that, so my interest was instantly piqued. And here was the clincher, he claimed that Jo Jo had soup dumplings on their menu and they were BETTER than those served at the Gourmet Dumpling House!
Before I go on I think I ought to explain to the uninitiated just what this fabled soup dumpling is. Sometimes they are called juicy dumplings, sometimes rather confusingly, they are referred to as steamed buns, but in all cases they consist of a steamed pouch-shaped dumpling with a thin skin, that along with the usual filling, contains a rich liquid broth. Understandably, eating a soup dumpling can be a tricky procedure. If you don’t do it right you are libel to end up getting a jet of scalding hot broth right in your face. Luckily my friend Emily taught me the correct method a while ago. First, you take a soup spoon in your left hand and a pair of chopsticks in your right. You then carefully (emphasis on the carefully part) pick a dumpling up out of the steamer with your chopsticks, and gently place it into your soup spoon. Holding the spoon to your mouth with your left hand, you puncture the dumpling with your chopsticks and slurp up the broth that spills into the spoon. You can then eat the dumpling whole, or in bites, depending on how hot it is and how big your mouth is. It is a really unique experience that I cant recommend enough.
Anyway…. When I heard what we had in store for us, I hurriedly emailed our two foodie friends Emily and Brendan and asked them if they would like to check out the restaurant with us. Of course the answer was a resounding yes. Now when we go out to eat with Emily and Brendan, dinner literally becomes an event. There is always a large amount of excited hand clapping, sometimes jumping, we read menus together with that hot little gleam in our eyes that most people get when they look at pornography, and we always, always end up eating far more than is good for us.
Allston is a great, funky neighborhood, full of a surprising array of ethnic restaurants, concert venues, and dive bars. It was once home to the famous Mr. Butch, a well-known street character, who died in a Vespa accident in 2007, and the typical residents are a mix of clean-cut college kids and tragically hip emo types. In other words, we and our friends felt extremely old and uncool walking through the area to get to the restaurant.
With its offbeat décor, featuring an odd mix of modern glitz, traditional asian elements, and ridiculously cute stuffed animals, Jo Jo Taipei fits right into this eclectic neighborhood. The walls of the dining area are covered with kanji characters and ornate red paper lanterns, but the ceiling is painted a vibrant hot pink and surmounted by an elaborate crystal chandelier. Lacy curtains, embroidered with cartoon puppies, lead into the kitchen, and the area near the register is packed with creepy kawaii merchandise. Go figure.
We started with the usual noodle dish-Taiwanese noodles with pork. The noodles were thin, almost spaghetti-like and a bit soft and overcooked for my taste, but deliciously flavored. They were served with shitakes, bean sprouts, and slivers of bamboo shoot. I found the hard crunch of the bamboo shoots a little out of place with the softer noodles and mushrooms, but that’s just a matter of personal taste.
We then had Turnip Pancakes, which I have never had before, but Emily recommended.These are rectangular patties of pureed turnip, pan fried and served with a dipping sauce.They are not completely unlike a potato pancake texture-wise, being soft and smooth on the inside, and crispy on the outside, but are sweeter and less mealy. They had a slight seafood flavor, so I think they also contained small dried shrimp. The accompanying sauce was rather like a Chinese version of American BBQ sauce: a tomato based sauce (maybe ketchup??)mixed with sriracha. It was a very tasty condiment that I would like to try to duplicate at home.
Next came a dish of Chinese Watercress: long, hollow-stemmed leafy green vegeatables, sautéed with copious amounts of oil and garlic. If you have never found a way to make your veggies taste good, I suggest you try this method.
Then….the piece de résistance, the soup dumplings. We ordered two kinds: crab and pork, and both arrived in the same two-layer bamboo steamer, lined with wilted leaves. So what was the verdict? Were they indeed better than what we have had at the Gourmet Dumpling House? Hell yeah! The filling was more tender, more complex in flavor, and the skins were very thin and fragile, so the tiniest bite sent the broth I gushing out onto our spoons. The pork was similar in taste to what I have had before, but the crab was a lovely surprise, having a sweet and delicate sea flavor.
Afterwards we had one of Jo Jo’s specials, half of a smoked duck. It was pleasantly salty, fried crispy, a bit drier than the style of duck we had at Shanghai Gate, and it had a wonderful herbal flavor, suggesting that it had been smoked with tea leaves.
Last minute Emily asked for an order of Sesame bread, which she had spied on another diner’s table, and which she had fond memories of her grandfather making. This turned out to be a doughy almost gluternous bread stuffed with spring onions, and covered in a crispy, almost caramelized coating of sesame seeds. It was delicious-true comfort food, but it made our already overly full bellies groan.
We were stuffed to the gills, ready to sink back into a happy food-induced coma, but Brendan insisted that we run across the street to Yi Soon, a Taiwanese bakery, for dessert. I cant say that I regret the pastry stuffed with sweetened red bean paste that Jeff and I shared, but walking back to the car, I no longer felt old or uncool…. I was too worried about the possibility that my mistreated stomach would finally burst and I would become the new famous character of Allston.