Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My Little Dumplings - Mai Xiang Yuan

So apparently Montreal is going through a dumpling craze. Not too long ago, Qing Hua dumplings were all the rage, giving Montreal its first taste of authentic Chinese dumplings. Following its success, other entrepreneurs have tried to replicate Qing Hua's success, and only one to even come close - or surpass, in some people's opinions - is Mai Xiang Yuan.

Located on St-Laurent street, Mai Xiang Yuan is a tiny and particularly inconspicuous restaurant, nestled among the various pho restaurants in the area. But if you peek in the window, you'll no doubt see a ton of customers, because what can I say? Montrealers love their dumplings.

Accessibility - Grade: A-
The restaurant is located in Chinatown, on St-Laurent street, so it's about a five minute walk from Places d'Armes metro. It's actually located on the upper portion of St-Laurent (within Chinatown), past the grocery store.

Service - Grade: B
I had a bit of weird experience here. There was one waitress serving the entire restaurant at the time while simultaneously acting as cashier and hostess, so she was understandably busy. When I first approached her asking her for seats, I had asked her in English and was with my Caucasian friend, and her attitude was brusque, but she was curt to the white person in front of us too. But then I switched to Mandarin, and suddenly, she was very apologetic and nice, which never happens. At least not to me. So I guess it varies? You could get the typical indifferent service you'd expect from Chinese waiters, or you could get pretty decent service, like we did.

Food - Grade: B+

Cucumber 'salad'
For about a buck and half, you can get some small appetizer dishes, such as this cucumber 'salad'. Other than that, the entire menu consists of dumplings, so if you're looking for stir-fries and such, this is not the place for you. This dish is pretty light and refreshing, since all it is is slices of cucumbers and julienned carrots tossed with minced garlic, a bit of black vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil. It's a fairly common-place dish in Chinese households, and there's nothing about this particular one that stood out to me, but it does make a nice accompaniment to a starch and meat-heavy meal.

Celery 'salad'
It was the same case with the celery salad. Sticks of celery, julienned carrots, and boiled peanuts tossed in vinegar and sesame oil. Light, refreshingly crunchy, and good to pick at while you're waiting for the main act. 

The size of the restaurant is pretty much what you see here.
Like with Qing Hua, you can see a couple of aunties hard at kneading dough and making dumplings, ensuring that you'll get the freshest possible dumpling experience. I've mentioned it in my Qing Hua posts, but hand-kneaded dough gives a dense and chewy dumpling shell, which is my favourite part of hand-made dumplings. People who are used to machine-processed shells might find the skin a bit thick, but people who grew up on hand-kneaded dumplings know that this is where it's at.

Pan-fried lamb and onion dumplings

You'll find that Mai Xiang Yuan has a smaller and safer selection of dumplings on their menu than Qing Hua does, but what they do have definitely works. If you like lamb, you can't go wrong with lamb and onion. The lamb does have a bit of a gamey taste, but with the onion, the taste becomes more savory than gamey.

I know Westerners (and a lot of Chinese folks) like pan-fried dumplings, but I'm personally not a huge fan. I prefer my dumplings boiled. That being said, if you like the extra crunch and the appetizing aroma that pan-frying gives dumplings, then you'll find that Mai Xiang Yuan does a decent job of it. I do think that ours were a little on the burnt side, but it didn't affect the flavours of the dumplings that much.

Boiled Pork and Chinese cabbage dumplings

Ah. Now this is what home tastes like. I said in my Qing Hua post that their dumplings taste like what my mom makes, but Mai Xiang Yuan's dumplings probably taste more homemade than Qing Hua's, since most homes don't bother with the soup filling. That being said, Mai Xiang Yuan's boiled dumplings are definitely better than Qing Hua's.

The shells were soft and chewy, but still firmly enveloped the filling, sealing all the juices inside the dumpling so that when you bite into it, the flavour explodes on your tongue. When I ordered the boiled dumplings at Qing Hua, they were overcooked to the point where the shell was starting to fall apart, and the soup was seeping out of the dumplings.

Pork and Cabbage dumplings
Pork and Chinese cabbage (大白菜 in Chinese) is an extremely popular type of dumpling in China, and possibly the most commonplace flavour of dumpling. Pork is a mild-tasting meat, and when mixed with the light flavours of the Chinese cabbage, you get a delicately flavoured dumpling. It's probably part of the reason I always forget that I'm basically eating compacted starch and protein and end up OD-ing on dumplings. Without fail. Every time.

Price - $
One thing that Mai Xiang Yuan has going for it is its affordable price. Where one plate of dumplings at Qing Hua might be around $10-$13, a plate of dumplings at Mai Xiang Yuan is only about $7-$8. My friend and I ordered two plates of dumplings and two small starter dishes, and our bill came to around $20 in total. $10 per person really isn't too shabby, considering how you're getting actual fresh food.

Final Grade: B
Don't get me wrong, the dumplings here are great. They're fresh, authentic, and cheap, and the service here isn't too shabby either. But if they taste exactly like what mom makes, then I'll just skip the line up and head on home for some fresh, delicious dumplings. One of the reasons I prefer Qing Hua to Mai Xiang Yuan is the variety they offer, and the uncommon flavours that I can't get at home (curry dumplings, anyone?). But for those who don't have a dumpling-savvy mom, then yeah, give Mai Xiang Yuan a try. It's the closest you'll come to having homemade Chinese dumplings without actually going to a Chinese person's home!

Mai Xiang Yuan
1084 rue St-Laurent 

Mai Xiang Yuan on Urbanspoon


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