Oh, Mama!

China Mama serves some of the finest Eastern cuisine this side of the Great Wall

Pan-fried pot stickers (gyoza).
Photo: Beverly Poppe

In China, but more specifically in Shanghai, steamed pork soup dumplings, transliterated as xiao loong bao, or “little dragon buns,” are more a religion than an obsession. At that city’s famous Nanxiang Mantou Dian, a rustic wooden shack that serves the most celebrated version of this dish, people line up around the block to eat them, despite the fact that they are done in literally thousands of places in that city.

These juicy pork-filled dumplings are a tad bigger than a golf ball, pinched on top and brought piping hot. The idea is to bite into the bottom and slurp out the soup. Then, you eat the remainder in two or three bites.

I’ve scoured the Pacific Rim looking for great xiao loong bao, and until recently, the only place I’ve really been satisfied with them has been Din Tai Fun, a cultish place in Arcadia, California, where there is almost always a line as well.

The Details

Restaurant Guide
China Mama
3420 S. Jones Blvd. 873-1977.
Open daily, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Suggested dishes: chilled spicy cucumber, $4.99; green onion pancake, $4.75; steamed juicy pork bun, $7.25; steamed silken chicken soup, $6.99.
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But now, we can save the effort. The new China Mama, a boxy, freestanding place with lime-green walls and garish red light fixtures that resemble Slinkys (if they had been made out of Lucite), does the best xiao loong bao in Vegas, and maybe anywhere between here and New York City.

English is minimal here, as are English-speaking customers. But the menu is bilingual, even if some attempts at translation are misleading.

Said xiao loong bao is P23 on this menu, referred to as “steamed juicy pork bun.” These are not to be confused with P27, pan-fried pot stickers, aka the Japanese name, gyoza. Pot stickers are familiar to us, so if you like them, these are a credible example of the genre.

After you’ve climbed that mountain, though, there is a slew of other dishes you’ll want to experience at this noodle and dumpling house, which belongs to a Taiwanese family. I love beef roll, P29, a creation that resembles a wrap one might get at the local Subway. It couldn’t be more different, of course.

China Mama’s beef roll starts with a warm Chinese wheat-flour pancake, as thin as a crepe and wickedly crunchy around the edges. It’s rolled up with thinly sliced beef and a touch of cilantro, but that lingering sensation on the palate is from sesame oil, which adds fragrance and pungency.

The classic green onion pancake, P28, looks like a Frisbee, a multi-layered crepe filled with shards of onion that is oily enough to leave a slick residue on the fingers. It’s a must.

One evening, the kitchen was out of the northern Chinese snack rice dumpling with pork in bamboo leaf. But they did have the sweet version, R13, filled with a red bean paste. It’s as close to a dessert as you are going to come here.

Pancakes and dumplings aren’t the only dishes served here, but don’t come looking for kung pao chicken. The restaurant does exceptional soups, such as an off-menu tofu green vegetable soup trumped up with salted egg, or the hearty pork with preserved radish soup stocked with noodles, a meal in itself.

Steamed silken chicken soup is delicious, but its appearance may put some people off. The broth is intensely concentrated, stocked with nothing more than chicken pieces, skin on. The problem for some, though, is that the chicken skin is faintly black from a Chinese herbal rub that is thought to boost a pregnant woman’s health.

Should you want more conventional, or more filling, fare, the menu won’t let you down.

Fried rice can be had with shredded pork, shredded beef or shredded chicken, a Northern Chinese-style mountain of rice with a minimum of soy sauce, but lots of egg, green onion and garlic to take its place.

Plain rice is handled in the traditional Taiwan lunch style, topped with a pork chop that has been tossed in spiced salt, or with a simple filet of fish. Also try the fried rice cakes, chewy lozenges tossed with friendly items like shrimp, sausage or spicy chili.

Taiwanese restaurants simply don’t exist without a selection of cold dishes, which here are found by the kitchen, under a plastic cover. Choose among exotic fare such as salted duck, chilled spicy cucumber, Szechuan-style pickled cabbage or even spicy pig ear, again redolent of sesame oil.


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