By Cole Cahill
Photo by Cole Cahill
Just a few miles south of South Pasadena’s city limit is a mecca of East Asian cuisine. Hundreds of eateries line the crowded boulevards of Las Tunas, Valley, and Garvey, and only a discerning eye can spot the places worth attending. In the depths of this region sits one of these establishments: the renowned Taiwanese restaurant Mama Lu’s Dumpling House.
The restaurant is no secret in this community; as early as 5:30, tables are fully booked. The first half hour at Mama Lu’s is often spent standing in a narrow corridor in the back of the restaurant alongside old couples with kids noisily playing on phones. The long wait does not seem to turn diners away, which speaks to the tastiness of the food.
Mama Lu’s Dumpling House specializes in green onion pancakes, beef wraps, and other Chinese staples. They also pride themselves in their xiaolongbao, a dumpling typically filled with bubbling broth, tender ground pork, and crisp green onions that has gained notoriety thanks to famous institutions like Din Tai Fung.
The dining room is cavernous: vents hang like stalactites from the extremely high ceilings. This sort of space makes the restaurant loud and bustling, an atmosphere that is amplified by the constant calling of numbers from the loudspeaker. Mama Lu’s is not a classically relaxing environment, but the frantic ambiance makes for a unique, lively experience.
The meal started with the green onion pancakes, which were perfectly crispy, savory, and just the right level of greasy. However, the Shanghai rice cake dish brought some disappointment—the chewy noodles and well-cooked shrimp were not enough to make up for the plate’s overly salty and one-dimensional flavor.
Luckily, Mama Lu’s xiaolongbao lived up to expectations. The dumplings had a perfectly chewy outer layer encased flavorful soup and flawlessly cooked meat. Thicker skin and richer broth than the famous Din Tai Fung, provides a different take on the classic dish. The meal was completed by well cooked, flavorful string beans with delicious amounts of garlic and soy.
Mama Lu’s major drawback is its service: food took a considerably long time to arrive, and flagging down a server to refill water or order more items proved a difficult task. The restaurant is understaffed and undersized, which had a significant effect on the dining experience.
Mama Lu’s provides delicious Taiwanese food at reasonable prices. If you’re looking for efficient, highly accommodating service, Din Tai Fung may be the superior choice; however, when it comes to the food, Mama Lu’s proves to give it a run for its money with a different style, great flavors, and a lower bill.