May 13th, 2006


Vanessa blends, blands

Five years ago, when I lived on Orchard Street, down at the Chinatown end, I discovered a newly-opened dumpling shop at 118 Eldridge Street so incredibly cheap and tasty that it became an almost daily stop on my scooter-trails around the city (I was caught up in the Razor craze of 2000).

Vanessa Weng spoke just enough English to compliment me on the colour co-ordination of my eye-patches; the rest of her staff spoke none. Vanessa’s dumplings were Beijing style; it was here that I heard snatches of Beijing opera wafting from the back room, and, intrigued by the mannered vocal inflections, settled on the idea of making an oriental-sounding album (it was recorded in Tokyo and released as “Oskar Tennis Champion”; you can read about the moment I decided to make it in My muse has the right to children).

Dumpling House (site of so many of my happy New York memories, and also haunted by melancholy ghosts) is still there, still offering five dumplings for a dollar and ten for two. It still has its beautifully generic name, beautifully functional décor (zinc shelves, hot sauce, everything organized around the cauldrons where the dumplings are) and its non-English-speaking staff. The chef is a Buddhist; his favourite T-shirt, sky blue, sports a quotation from the Dalai Lama.

“And what dumplings they are!” exclaims the Tenement Museum’s website. “Fried to perfection in giant cast-iron skillets, their charred, crispy bottoms and perfectly cooked tops yield a treasure trove of succulent pork and scallions within. A smattering of soy sauce and a dash of hot sauce and a perfect snack awaits your gullet.

“If dumplings are not your preferred snack, order one of the sesame pancakes with beef. A sandwich made of the bread like sesame pancake, anise flavored beef, cilantro, carrots and various sauces, the taste is unlike anything you've ever tried- unless you've been to Beijing.”

Well, Vanessa Weng has expanded. She has a new place on 14th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Vanessa’s Dumpling, it’s called. And I’m sad to report that it completely fails to capture the magic of the original Dumpling House.

I learned about Vanessa’s Dumpling from Vanessa herself. She was standing next to me in the Asian Convenient Store on 3rd, turned round and said “You my customer, right? Remember me? Now have new dumpling house on 14th Street!” She handed me a leaflet.

When I visited Vanessa’s Dumpling yesterday, Vanessa was stressed. The computerised tills were giving her young staff some headaches. She didn’t seem to notice me. I asked for five dumplings and a sesame pork pancake – or rather, P3 and D1, as they appeared on the ugly, computer-printed menu board. The dumplings were twice as expensive (five for $1.99 instead of five for a dollar) and only half as tasty. Perhaps they no longer recycle the cooking fat, or perhaps the skillets don’t yet have the necessary patina. Perhaps the Tibetan cook opted to stay in Chinatown. Worse still, the sesame pancake had turned into a hamburger! No longer a triangular slice of bread, it was literally a sesame-sprinkled hamburger bun! It still tasted better than any hamburger, though, but not quite as good as it tastes on Eldridge Street. And more expensive.

On 14th Street, Vanessa has expanded… and lost focus. She’s added sushi and hibachi, clunking up the décor with Japanese-style maneki nekko cats. She no longer sells soy milk. The handwritten, handmade, beautifully functional zinc style of the old place has gone, along with the old Cantonese-speaking clientele. The couple next to me were speaking Spanish.

As I chewed my hamburger bun, I wondered if Vanessa’s was “an American story”, a story of immigration and assimilation. You arrive, offering something like they do it back home, in an atmosphere which almost captures the old country. You make a fortune, your dumplings sell like hot cakes. Then you branch out, and bland out. Your new scale forces you to compromise, to lose the flavour you had, the flavour of elsewhere. You lose the rough edges, but with them goes the charm, the taste, the quirks, the personality. You rent a more expensive space, and your prices go up. What you gain in scalability you lose in personality.

I know; I’ve been a small business myself, and when I wanted to expand, I planned to get bland; to work with session musicians, to adopt the prevalent commercial style, to use standard marketing agents and presentation formats…

When is diversification not diversification? When you abandon what made you diverse in the first place. When is enrichment impoverishment? When you abandon the virtues that poverty brought with it, virtues that are one part luck, one part inverse snobbery in the eye of the beholder, virtues that reveal the secret generosity of meanness: the re-used cooking oil, the high-density space, the dirty old Chinatown street with its view nevertheless framing the Chrysler Building in the distance.

I read somewhere that something like 25% of all American immigrants passed through the Lower East Side during the 20th century, passed through and moved on, blanded out, merged in. Is Vanessa Weng doing the same? Is hers “an American story”?