79 Huron Street
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and soda: $25
I’m not exactly sure how I’ve managed to miss this place for so long. Shortly after Mother’s Dumplings started getting good buzz in the food-loving community, the husband came home with some leftovers from his lunch there and it’s been on my to-do list ever since. Maybe it’s because I tend to gravitate to Spadina when visiting Chinatown, or that I just don’t think of the place when I’m going past, but this week I finally made it to Mother’s Dumplings, and am kicking myself for waiting so long.
At first glance, the basement space seems very much like a hole-in-the-wall kind of deal, as if someone has cleared out the regular furniture in a basement apartment and set up a handful of plastic-covered tables on a spur of the moment whim. But further inspection reveals an amusing wink and nod sense of humour that makes the place feel even more homey and welcoming.
Yes, the two-room space feels very much like someone’s low rent apartment. Four tables in the front room and four along the wall by the kitchen are the extent of the seating here, with a television in the front room showing images of soothing scenery. In the back room, the show is all about watching owner and chef Zhen and her staff hand make the dumplings and cook them on a pair of electric 4-burner stoves. Despite a short wicker screen, between the chatting women rolling dough and the cups of hot tea atop the plastic tablecloth, it really does feel as if we’re in someone’s home kitchen instead of a restaurant.
The walls are covered in picture frames plastered with comment cards filled out by past patrons (some of these can be seen on the restaurant’s website) – poetry, artwork and heaps of love and praise for the food here makes this the restaurant equivalent of a child’s artwork stuck to the fridge; another taste of home that gives this place such a great vibe.
And those comment cards don’t offer false praise, they mean every dumpling loving word!
Since there’s just the two of us, we stick mostly to dumplings for our meal, although Mother’s also offers noodle dishes, rice and congee, and a couple of stews – and while I’m sure they’re great, we see nothing but the beloved dumplings leave the kitchen while we are there.
Dumplings are available steamed, boiled or pan-fried, and we choose one of each, plus the much-touted green-onion pancake ($3.25). Approximately 6-inches wide, this fried savoury is fluffy and thick and full of bright green onion chunks with a crispy exterior. Gorgeous.
The boiled dumplings arrive first. We had ordered chicken and mushroom, but they were out and we opted for chicken with dill instead ($6.49/12 dumplings). They’re not beautiful – dumplings aren’t really an especially attractive food – but the flavour has us both groaning with pleasure as the scent of dill wafts through the air with each bite.
Next up, steamed vegetarian dumplings ($5.49/10 dumplings) with bak choy, mushroom and tofu. These are earthy, slightly sweet, and remind me of wandering into a Chinese herbalist shop.
The fried pork and bak choi dumplings ($5.99/10 dumplings) are our least favourite, as they’re missing the big flavour punch of the other ones we tried, but they’re still pretty darned great, each dumpling full of sweet ground pork inside the crispy wrapper.
We make it about 2/3 of the way through all the food on the table and our server arrives with a knowing smile. “Too much?” she asks, having seen this type of greedy customer before, no doubt. But she is happy to pack up the remainder and I’m just as happy the next day when I reheat the leftovers.
Besides offering two servings sizes in the restaurant, Mother’s Dumplings also offers their product frozen, to take home. Ranging in price from $9.25 to $12.10 for 30 frozen dumplings, it’s definitely worth having some of these on hand for those times when the craving strikes.
Finally, even the bill arrives with a dose of motherly advice and humour, offering proverbs, and a list of celebrity birthdays for the day printed down the side. It’s obvious that someone here “gets it” and is working the mother angle to their advantage, but it doesn’t seem stilted or slickly marketed. Rather, the owners have put a bit of thought into how they want their business to be perceived, while still injecting their own sense of fun and personality into the place. The end result is a charming little restaurant that not only serves up fantastic and inexpensive food, but offers the comfort and warmth of a family home.
It may have taken me a long time to finally check out Mother’s Dumplings, but I can guarantee this visit won’t be the last.