Something strange is happening along the stretch of Mass. Ave. between the South End and the Charles River: Low-end dining is becoming unterrible. Blocks once dotted with bottom-feeder restaurants that only frugal (or very stoned) college students could love—exemplified by the cheap, greasy, American-sorta-Chinese dump that was Nan Ling—now feature much better budget eats, with the likes of Chef Chang’s and InBoston complementing previously lonely standouts like Pho Basil. The most dramatic upgrade yet might be the brand-new Dumpling Palace, which replaced Nan Ling and is exorcising its execrable memory with excellent traditional Taiwanese food.
If its long menu looks familiar, that’s because Dumpling Palace is the sibling of Chinatown’s outstanding Dumpling Café and carefully recreates many of its signature dishes, including Shanghainese soup dumplings, a.k.a. mini juicy buns with pork ($7.50) or pork and crabmeat ($7.75). Eat carefully to avoid scalding: Gently lift one of these delicate beauties from its steamer basket, bite the top off, carefully slurp out the hot broth and eat the rest with black vinegar/ginger dip. (We gave these a Boston’s Best award again in 2015 for a reason. Do not miss them.) Vegetarians will enjoy mini parsley dumplings ($7.75), smaller, simpler steamed dumplings with a traditional soy sauce/rice wine dip. Taiwan-style grilled anchovies ($7.50) are another straightforward winner: two large, meaty, grilled whole specimens with a lightly sweet glaze, easily filleted with just your chopsticks.
Influences from the coastal Chinese mainland (like Guangdong and Fujian provinces) crop up in fine seafood dishes like clam with basil ($13.95), a dozen-and-a-half small shore clams in the shell in a light brown sauce with lots of slivered fresh basil, and salt and pepper shrimp with head ($12.95), in which whole shrimp are skillfully fried in a light batter and served with julienned fresh longhorn peppers. (This is the easiest path imaginable to eating whole shrimp, which are much tastier than the headless, though the timid can order them without.) The influence of famously spicy Sichuan cuisine pops up in Szechuan-style flounder ($14.95), a bubbling pot of tender fillets in a crimson sauce with the one-two punch of dried red capsicum chilies and numbing-hot Sichuan peppercorns.
Meat dishes are generously sized and very reasonably priced, as in beef with potatoes and longhorn pepper ($12.95), a tangy/sweet stir-fry centered on shredded al dente potatoes. Chicken leg with three essences in hot pot ($11.50), a benchmark dish of Taiwanese cuisine, boasts roughly chopped bone-in thighs with a rich, caramel sauce of soy, sesame oil and rice wine; just watch out for small bones. Lamb with cabbage in clay pot ($15.95) subbed the advertised cabbage for heaps of big, crunchy mung bean sprouts on one visit and delivers powerful, fatty, slightly gamy lamb flavor. Taiwan-style pork liver ($10.95) bedecks thin strips of very tender, barely medium liver with a lot of ginger, bok choy, scallions and leeks, a gorgeous and subtle treatment that should tantalize even the offal-averse.
The roster of noodle dishes includes Taiwan-style rice cake with veggies and pork ($8.95), the delightfully chewy gnocchi-like disks of rice-flour pasta, and Fuzhou-style rice noodles ($7.95), a light but satisfying plate of spaghetti-like white noodles with mushrooms, scallions and scrambled egg in a mild sauce. Braised beef brisket noodles soup with spinach ($7.50) is probably best enjoyed as a one-course meal in a bowl: a choice of noodles (like the spaghetti-like wheat-based Shanghai noodles) in a rich, blood-red, fiery beef broth loaded with chilies, the deep umami smack of Sichuan chili-bean sauce, accents of star anise, ginger and Sichuan peppercorns, floating leaves of spinach, minced pickled greens and slices of fabulously fatty and tender brisket. It’s a deeply satisfying, wonderfully restorative dish.
Dumpling Palace is more limited for drinks than its Chinatown sibling, with bubble tea ($3.95), soft drinks ($1.50), individual cups of hot tea ($1.25) and no beer. The kitchen also falls short in a couple of spots, notably in pan-fried dishes like a roast beef with scallion pancake ($7.75), where a slightly too-thick pancake makes the dish drier than optimal, or a pan-fried chives with clear noodle pocket ($3.95) that gets the filling right but trades the glutinous chew of the advertised wrapper for ordinary wheat-flour dough. But these feel like quibbles given the menu’s extraordinary length, overall consistency of execution, regional breadth and attractive prices, including a three-course combo meal ($22.95) with 56 choices that is available from 11 am to 4 pm, a steal.
The bright, plain, spotless room features very friendly, attentive service and for some reason nonstop Tchaikovsky on the stereo, perhaps a nod to the nearby music schools. Come to think of it, it’s not just long-suffering Back Bay residents who need more superb, high-value restaurants like Dumpling Palace: Concertgoers on their way to or from Symphony Hall, the Berklee Performance Center and Jordan Hall ought to be singing a hallelujah chorus too.
-Mini juicy pork buns
-Taiwan-style grilled anchovies
-Salt and pepper shrimp with head
-Clam with basil
-Taiwan-style pork liver
-Braised beef brisket noodle soup with spinach
Hours: 11 am-3 am
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private lots
Dumpling Palace 179 Mass. Ave., Boston (617-266-8888) dumplingpalaceboston.com