Yes, it’s rude to stare, but I’m spellbound by the magic occurring behind the glass that separates me from the crew of four dumpling masters. Eyes down and resolute, each performs a role with somber precision, never breaking stride. Call it craft or art, those fresh, handmade dumplings are the reason everyone is here at JA Jiaozi in The Market Place in Irvine.
Open since June 2018, this sleek dumpling palace now dominates the Beijing-style dumpling category. XianYi Kong is the mastermind behind this spot, part of his diverse portfolio of restaurants, including some across China. Its sole sibling in California is the swanky Bistro Na’s in the San Gabriel Valley, recently awarded a Michelin star and notable because the two share Executive Chef Tian Yong.
Here, it’s all about the dumplings. You’ll see them on every table, anchoring a meal rounded out with other hot and cold dishes. Choosing those core dumplings is challenging for first-timers. Options abound with a dozen fillings, choices of preparations (steamed or boiled), and the custom dipping sauce you blend from tabletop cruets of soy sauce, black vinegar, chile oil, and a signature sauce. Chile paste appears on request. Bear in mind these are not the soup dumplings that underpin those staggering wait times at South Coast Plaza’s Din Tai Fung. I’ve never waited longer than five minutes at JA Jiaozi, though my group rarely exceeds four diners.
Go ahead and ask the accommodating servers for advice; they seem to know every dish inside out. They might not volunteer that the boiled versions are most tender and stay warm longer, and they likely won’t confess the steamed choices can get sort of chewy as they cool. I suggest ordering in batches as you go to avoid either over-ordering or speed eating to race the cooling process. Also know that dumplings do not make good leftovers.
Yes, the menu is complicated to navigate. It’s congested (with photos, too!), and categories are baffling. After a handful of visits, I found my favorites, but it took patience and curiosity.
The default darling is the five-piece steamed dumpling combo, each with a different filling and wrapper tinted with vegetables to yield a rainbow of colors. Arranged just so in their dainty bamboo steamer baskets, these are colorful eye candy beckoning for photos. Alas, the fillings vary from bland to mild in flavor. Bump up the savory factor with fillings that include juicy pork-celery, the popular diced chicken-mushroom, and the complex JA Signature with pork, dried shrimp, and shrimp roe (all these are boiled). Like spicy? Bright red Flaming Hot dumplings bring the heat with chile peppers, Sriracha, and garlic sauce with a pork-celery base and get my vote for best steamed dumpling.
After selecting dumplings, fill in with hot or cold dishes. I am a sucker for the tofu-skin salad, which first sounded odd but is irresistible for its tender chew and cooling crunch of cilantro stems. Tofu is house-made here, so the springy ribbons of scraped skin have slight notes of buttery sweetness. Cubes of this artisan-quality tofu add warm richness to beef mapo tofu, a hefty bowl of minced beef cooked into a ragu-like sauce.
Lightly pickled radish and cucumber salad is a crisp, bright counterpoint to heavier warm dishes. Fried rice appeals to almost anyone, especially when fluffy and bursting with umami like the (understandably) popular version with black pepper, chopped shrimp, and bonito flakes. Noodles are cut from the same dough as the dumplings, so they’re scrupulously fresh and tender. First-rate veggie chow mein is thoughtful comfort for an ailing friend; order it to go or use Door Dash. Come summer, I’ll be back for those hot and sour beef cold noodles.
The space is modern and exuberantly minimal. Don’t miss the mural with swirls of ceramic dumplings. Service is reliably polite and accommodating, as clearly these folks want you to leave happy, and the prices are a bargain for the value received. In fact, the double take I do when reading the tab is disbelief that the total is so low.
Seats at the riveting viewing bar are precious and few. Only five can gawk at once. I’m certain the novelty will ultimately wear off for me. But I do confess my fleeting delight when the cook manning the boiling cauldron caught my eye and smiled.
13776 Jamboree Road, Irvine
5 BEST DISHES
➜ Signature dumplings, boiled
➜ Tofu-skin salad
➜ Beef mapo tofu
➜ Shrimp fried rice with bonito flakes
➜ Stir-fried green beans
Dumplings, $7.50 to $10.50; appetizers, $5.50 to $12; specialty entrees, $12.50
FYI In Chinese, jia means home and jiaozi means dumpling.
In Chinese, jia means home and jiaozi means dumpling.