Do not be deceived by the dumpling. It may well be the world's cutest food - a bite-sized wonder of sheer dough handiwork gift-wrapped around an infinite variety of juicy hidden treasures. But a great one can be devilishly complex. And the many mysteries of the dumpling's art - the recipes for perfectly pliant dough, the sleight-of-hand to shape them deftly - are fiercely guarded by its skilled practitioners. In particular, from the prying eyes of Ben Puchowitz.
"I tried to get everyone to let me work with them," he said. "They weren't into it."
The chef behind the irrepressibly likable and unabashedly inauthentic Cheu Noodle Bar was determined to get serious training in authentic dumpling craft before opening Bing Bing Dim Sum, his latest riff on Asian street food in collaboration with partner Shawn Darragh.
The two had gone on a dumpling binge across Hong Kong, and knew the possibilities. They drew on the joyous, frenetic energy of that journey for the trippy cartoon dumpling characters that are muraled across the walls of their boisterous wedge-shaped space, the cafe windows wide open onto their sharply angled corner of East Passyunk Avenue.
But none of the Asian dough masters back home - not Sakura-Mandarin, not Dim Sum Garden, not Nom Wah Tea Parlor (a local branch of New York's oldest dim summery just opened in Philly), not even a restaurant in Portland, Maine (!) - would allow him into their dumpling inner-sanctum.
It could be that they knew Puchowitz's creative impulses might lead the dumpling into unfamiliar Western poses with hot pastrami or crispy scrapple. Who knows? But the talented 31-year-old chef, who first made a name at his father's Matyson, did what any resourceful cook would do in 2015: He studied YouTube for keys to some of his more ambitious challenges, such as soup dumplings.
"I know what a soup dumpling should be like," says Puchowitz, "but for some reason, mine were not exactly the same."
He's made considerable progress in the first few months on those broth-filled Shanghai beggar's purses also called xiao long bao. And although Puchowitz's soup dumplings are still not as elegantly crafted as one sealed by a certified bao master with 22 identical pleats at the neck, they're more than tight enough to hold the juice. And the two varieties being served now at Bing Bing - the plain ground pork filling bobbing inside a hot gush of pure pig flavor; the kimchi-spiked variety blushing sharp with chile heat (though a shade weak with fermented kimchi tang) - are definitely required slurping.
With a seat inside one of the booths framed by filigreed Chinese bed frames, a coconut-rum drink smoked with lapsang souchong tea draining all too fast, and a parade of inventive, affordable, and boldly flavored Asian small-plates flying by, it's hard to think of a place I've had more fun eating in recent months. Even if the 97-decibel roar made conversation a challenge.
That didn't stifle the steady nitpicking at my table: The skins are too thin! No, the skins are too thick! It's no Dim Sum Garden. . . . The inevitable comparisons to more traditional renditions were impossible to avoid.
And, for the most part, our complaints settled on subtle textural miscues that pushed a few Bing Bing dishes just slightly off register. The curried cauliflower stuffing inside the crispy dumplings was tasty, but a bit mushy. The Jade dumplings had a fantastic center of perfectly seasoned minced shrimp, leeks and fish sauce, but their gorgeous green har gao dumpling skins, turned a deep forest hue with spinach water, were a hint too puffy and soft. The panfried turnip cakes cleverly bound with matzo meal (instead of sticky rice flour) were still too dense beneath their fried egg and bonito flakes.
Puchowitz's most successful dishes were those that roamed farther off-road into his own creativity, like the panfried cloud puff bao buns stuffed with intensely smoked, Sichuan-spiced pastrami, sauerkraut, and sweet onions, with Russian dressing on the side. Or the fluffy white "Pac-Man" buns sandwiched around crispy squares of Reading Terminal scrapple, so creamy inside their deep-fried crusts beneath a tiny sunny-side-up quail egg.
My favorite thing here was not a dumpling at all, but a variation on the "bing bread" that inspired the name. Usually a disk-shaped bread made from griddle-flattened coils of seasoned dough, bing bread here is more a thick slice of Texas toast swirled with a ribbon of sesame and scallions. And it is completely addictive for sopping up the bowl of tender clams steamed with black beans in gingery dashi and Sapporo beer. You'll want another.
But save room for other highlights. There were wok-blistered green beans tossed with fermented garlic and crispy quinoa. The fried cauliflower took on a sea-funky citrus heat from a dusting of dried shrimp, chiles, lemon zest, and cumin. The fried rice filled with braised lamb neck was a little too wet, but the cuminy, cardamom aroma reminded me of a moist Uzbek pilaf.
Puchowitz discontinued his spare ribs due to inconsistency, but ours were excellent, the soft steamed flesh pink and sticky with a garlicky sweet (but not too sweet) char siu gloss of oyster sauce and soy. The buttermilk-tenderized chicken wings, though, a runaway hit at Cheu, are a fixture here, modified for Bing Bing in a complex XO sauce that shifts from sweet to salty, mildly spicy, then a saline echo of dried shrimp umami.
I would have loved the poppy-studded breakfast dumplings if the delicacy of their crab and scrambled egg filling had not been dulled with mashed potatoes. The sesame noodles, meanwhile, were almost ideal. We just needed to add a splash of dark vinegar (on our table) to spotlight all the Sichuan flavors that danced inside the rich sesame sauce coating the toothy ramen noodles, silken tofu chunks, and wilted pea leaves in a peanut-free, slightly milder take on dan dan.
The young servers here are friendly, informed, and enthusiastic. And they directed us to numerous good drinks here to complement the Asian flavors - refreshing craft brews on draft (Lagunitas IPA, Victory Summer Love), a handful of spice-friendly wines (vinho verde), and cocktails infused with teas blended by neighboring Green Aisle Grocery (also available by the pot) that were as fun and intriguing as the food.
And then, of course, there are smile-inducing desserts such as the dimpled Hong Kong waffles that look like edible bubble wrap with coconut and chocolate dips. But my favorite was the inventive chocolate bao, its fluffy bun tinted dark with cocoa, wrapped around a boozy banana heart sweetened with brown sugar and bourbon, then drizzled in molten Nutella.
I have no doubt Bing Bing and its dumplings will continue to improve as the kitchen learns more and refines its techniques. But the chewy-creamy satisfaction of that chocolate bao (and the many other successes here) proves that when Puchowitz cooks with determined heart, it's already more than good enough.
BING BING DIM SUM (2 BELLS OUT OF 4)
1648 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-279-7702; bingbingdimsum.com
The latest deliberately inauthentic and funky twist on Asian street food from the talented duo behind Cheu Noodles is a high-energy fusion take on dim sum. The lively room of Chinese booths, community tables, and dumpling-inspired pop art brims with a youthful no-reservations crowd who come for the hot pastrami bao, Bing bread clams, and kimchi soup dumplings, then wash them down with tea-infused cocktails by the pitcher. There are some misses. But the prices are affordable, the experience is fun, and chef Ben Puchowitz's plates work best when straying furthest from tradition.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Soup dumplings (regular and kimchi-spicy); pastrami bao; Pac-man buns with scrapple; Jade dumplings; rice noodle rolls with garlic sausage; clams with black beans and Bing bread; XO chicken wings; sesame noodles; green beans; cauliflower; chocolate bao, bubble waffle.
DRINKS There is a solid little list of craft beers (Cigar City pale ale; Boulevard Tank 7 saison), but the creative tea cocktails are the big draw. For single servings, I loved the rummy Lapsang Dance touched with smoky lapsang souchong tea; the lemongrass-infused Singapore Slang was a lighter, refreshing piña colada with gin. Big groups, though, go for the cocktail pitchers, including Tiger Style that takes ol' Arnold Palmer to a very exotic place.
WEEKEND NOISE Bing Bing brings big noise, as in a 97 decibel boom. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, until midnight.
Plates, $6-$12 (average 2-3 plates a person.).
All major cards.
Valet parking costs $12 with validation.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews the Mainland Inn.