It’s hard to talk about JA Jiaozi without comparing it to Din Tai Fung. Outwardly, there are obvious similarities. Both give you a paper checklist onto which you scribble your order. Both focus on handmade dumplings, which are born from raw dough and crimped using nothing more than rolling pins, nimble fingers and patience. Heck, both feature big windows into their kitchens, through which you can see said dumplings being crafted by uniformed employees wearing facemasks. But it’s when you get into the gritty details that the differences float to the surface.
First, Din Tai Fung only shows you part of the process. At JA Jiaozi, the dumpling makers you see are also the dumpling cooks. Once formed, the jiaozis are taken to two stations in the same room, either to stacks of bamboo baskets, into which they are placed and steamed, or into a roiling vat of water, in which they are boiled in wire sieves.
And it’s in these two cooking methods that the dumplings at JA Jiaozi differ from those of Din Tai Fung, which steams almost all of theirs. After boiling, the signature dumplings—which are filled with pork, bits of dried shrimp and shrimp roe—are drained and poured onto a plate, where they slip and slide over one another as if just-caught fish.
All the JA Jiaozi boiled dumplings look the same. The edges aren’t pleated; they’re merely pinched and sealed tightly around their fillings. On the plate, they have the appearance of vacuum-sealed, lump-filled sacks. You eat them here just as you would at any Chinese dumpling joint: dipped into slurries of black vinegar, soy sauce and chile oil that you mix yourself. At JA Jiaozi, there’s also the option of a “house sauce,” which is just a premeasured, premixed combination of the vinegar and soy.
That signature dumpling is by far the most popular item on the menu, but the cod mousse and chive jiaozi is a close second. That said, it’s my least favorite. You can barely detect the fish; instead, you taste only chives, or if you soak it too long, just the dipping sauce itself. But then I remember that Din Tai Fung has a similar fish dumpling that’s even milder in flavor.
If there’s a JA Jiaozi dumpling that welcomes comparison to Din Tai Fung’s signature xiao long bao, it’s the beef and onion jiaozi, which can be found on the steamed side of the menu. It’s not built in the form of a xiao long bao; rather, it’s crimped into the classic gyoza half-moon, carefully pleated with multiple folds. Yet, when you bite into it, the same kind of hot, savory soup squirts out. The skin is thicker and chewier, but the whole experience is very comparable—and just as pleasurable.
You could make a meal of just the dumplings alone, which wouldn’t be a bad idea. What is a bad idea is ordering the jiaozi combo sampler. The dish features five color-coded dumplings for which you will pay nearly as much as a full order of 10. Unless you’re desperate for Instagram likes, skip this rainbow-hued rip-off. Also, avoid the sesame cod fish rolls, which are outrageously priced when you consider they’re just six really skinny egg rolls served with two insipid dipping sauces (one of which I swear is probably just Thousand Island).
Instead, you should be filling out your meal with starches such as the shrimp fried rice which is slightly dryer than Din Tai Fung’s, but upgraded with a toupee of shaved bonito flakes and studded with asparagus sliced into coins. There’s also an excellent green-bean dish that’s oil-blanched to crinkle the skin, then stir-fried with XO sauce. If the sauce ends up making it spicier and tangier than Din Tai Fung’s more straightforward Taiwanese version, it’s not by accident—this is how the dish usually tastes in Mainland China, from where JA Jiaozi reportedly hails.
But JA Jiaozi isn’t strictly Chinese. It seems to provide a wide berth for its chefs to experiment. There’s quinoa in another plate of fried rice, cactus in an appetizer salad, and quail eggs in the dish of star-anise-perfumed braised brisket, which was my favorite part. There’s even something called Imperial Court Yogurt for dessert, which turned out to be a pretty convincing riff on panna cotta.
Make no mistake, however: No matter what you order, you will come to the realization that JA Jiaozi is not an inexpensive restaurant. To be fair, Din Tai Fung isn’t either. Both cater to the Chinese nouveau riche. But just as they are similar in price and function, JA Jiaozi and Din Tai Fung are as different as Marvel and DC, iPhones and Samsungs. And isn’t it wonderful we live in a time in which we have the option of choice?
JA Jiaozi, 13776 Jamboree Rd., Irvine, (714) 786-8999; www.jajiaozi.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-9 p.m. Dishes, $7.50-$12.50. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.