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Chinese dumplings, one of the world’s great comfort foods, are steaming into the UN neighborhood.
Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, a Manhattan chain with aspirations to go national, opened a branch at Lexington Avenue and 45th Street last fall, offering a slick and somewhat ethnically cleansed version of the plump little delicacies at uptown prices.
In April, a funky one-of-a-kind called Super Dumplings opened a few blocks east on 45th, with greater variety but less pretension and lower prices.
Both spots are little more than storefronts, offering just a handful of stools and a bit of counter space for those looking to eat in. Beyond that, they are different but each has its merits.
Rickshaw has a stylish menu, a designer Web site, a witty Twitter feed and a squeaky-clean operation that can put your order into your hands faster than McDonald’s. Its goal is not only to feed you but also to convince you that Rickshaw is hip and modern and its menu worthy of franchising.
It gives creative twists to traditional recipes, promotes its locally sourced and organic ingredients and calls its customers “super awesome.” It offers up inspirational homilies: “We believe in double dipping, in using our hands when we eat, and meaning it when we smile”; “We have a mission and it is all about sharing positive experiences around food.”
Rickshaw’s goal appears to be a reasonably sized lunch at $10, give or take a few dollars. You could eat there for less but might end up hungry by midafternoon.
The menu currently offers seven different steamed dumplings, including “classic pork,” chicken and Thai basil, Peking duck and vegetarian edamame; and three varieties of steamed bun, which are larger and tastier than the dumplings: a braised pork slider, a “sloppy Zhou chicken” and a vegetarian shiitake mushroom. You won’t find fried dumplings here.
The dumplings come in cunning white-paper boxes modeled after the classic Chinese takeout container, while their sauces come in small plastic tubs labeled “Dip me” or “Pour me.” The packaging creates the impression that your meal is bigger than it actually is, and the full impact can verge on precious, but the dumplings and buns are nonetheless quite tasty.
There are also noodle and soup dishes, green salads and side orders like cucumber and jicama salad, rice noodle salad, tofu salad and spring rolls. But while the dumplings and buns are steamed to order, many of the other dishes are pre-made and trucked in, awaiting your purchase packed in plastic tubs or enveloped in plastic wrap. Stick to the dumplings and sliders.
Super Dumplings sprang up in space that was abandoned a few months earlier by a Middle Eastern joint with the odd name of Prince Grill. It has 161 — count ’em! — menu items. Plus 33 lunch and dinner combination specials.
It has no Web site and doesn’t tweet, but it does have a kitchen that appears to prepare all dishes from scratch, a friendly staff and some amazing flavors. If it weren’t for the dumplings, this would be another interchangeable Chinese carry-out place offering hundreds of dishes, none of them done well. It should honor its name and focus on the dumplings.
Apart from the lurid photos of its namesake on the walls, Super Dumpling doesn’t have much in decor. But about those dumplings! The menu offers seven kinds, including shrimp shu mai and vegetarian. Four are available steamed or fried while the other three are sold steamed only. A plate of six to eight of these big guys is just $4.95 to $5.95.
For another buck, you can get your dumplings in a bowl accompanied by your choice of noodles, ranging from skinny lo mein to fat chow fun. You can have them plain or in soup. Unlike Rickshaw, Super allows you to mix and match, providing two each of four different kinds of dumplings for just $6.95.
For 40 cents more, you can get those dumplings with a side dish of fried rice, mango and tofu salad, lo mein or tofu and peas. Or you can get them topped with a sauce like black bean, sweet and sour, General Tso’s or sautéed coconut curry.
While Rickshaw Dumpling tries to curry favor with New York’s gentrified Midtown palates, Super socks you in the palate with curry, garlic and red chili. The best thing I ate here was a red curry dumpling soup that was painted on a wall but not on the menu. The plump garlic-infused dumplings swam in a rich and savory broth that lighted up the inside of my mouth with heat and spice. Don’t miss it!
Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, nearest the UN, is open daily 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. It is located at 459 Lexington Avenue at 45th Street. (212) 461-1750.
Super Dumpling is open daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. It is located at 251 E. 45th Street just west of Second Avenue. (212) 808-9388.